Washington Redskins Coach Norv Turner said yesterday it is "a long shot" that tailback Stephen Davis's sprained left ankle will be healed sufficiently for the NFL's leading rusher to play at San Francisco Sunday night, when the Redskins can clinch their first playoff berth since the 1992 season.
"My guess is, [Davis's participation] is a long shot, but I wouldn't rule it out," Turner said.
Davis hurt the ankle in the second quarter of the Redskins' 24-21 loss Sunday at Indianapolis and didn't return to the game. The defeat left the Redskins with an 8-6 record and atop the NFC East by a game.
But with a playoff spot in their sights, the Redskins might be without their top offensive weapon. Davis said yesterday he's hopeful that he will play Sunday but acknowledged there is a significant chance he won't.
"I feel it will get better and better, and I can possibly play this week," said Davis, whose 70 rushing yards in the first half Sunday gave him a team-record 1,405 yards on the season. ". . . I'll try to run on it. If I can't, I probably won't play."
Turner said he would consider playing Davis on Sunday even if he does not practice all week. An MRI exam yesterday showed a chip fracture in Davis's ankle, but trainer Bubba Tyer said he determined after looking at previous X-rays of Davis's ankle that the floating bone chip was from a previous injury.
"Stephen is a very quick healer," Turner said. "He's very tough mentally, and I know he'd like to play. . . . He's tender right now, but I wouldn't rule it out."
It should be a significant week for Davis. He likely will be named the team's player of the year by the Quarterback Club tonight, and he probably will earn a February trip to Hawaii when the Pro Bowl selections are announced Wednesday. But missing the Redskins' most important games of the season would be a bitter ending to his season, Davis said.
"Coach Turner and [running game coordinator Bobby] Jackson, they had confidence in me," Davis said. "They gave me an opportunity, and I made the most of it. I feel I'm having a pretty good season, and hopefully I can finish it up."
Skip Hicks would start if Davis is unable to play, Turner said. Brian Mitchell, who played a major role in the offense in the second half Sunday, would take over for Hicks in passing situations.
"I guess Stephen will be day-to-day," Hicks said. "I'll prepare myself as if I'm going to be the starter. If I am, I'll be ready."
Hicks had 39 rushing yards on 11 second-half carries against the Colts. He has had few opportunities in his second NFL season after losing the starting job to Davis in training camp, and he said yesterday he was "impatient" in Sunday's game and didn't always wait for his blocking to develop properly.
"I want to go out there and do a lot of things because I haven't gotten a lot of opportunities," Hicks said. "It's tough to stay patient. You want to contribute. You want to help the team. Stephen is having a great year, a Pro Bowl season. All I can do is sit back, relax and watch him work."
With Davis in the lineup, the Redskins had a 13-10 halftime lead Sunday. Even without him, they had a last-gasp chance to beat one of the NFL's best teams. The Redskins recovered an onside kick with 1 minute 24 seconds remaining, but their last-chance drive fizzled after quarterback Brad Johnson was sacked on first down. A second-down completion to Mitchell was followed by incompletions on passes intended for wide receivers Albert Connell and Michael Westbrook on third and fourth downs, respectively.
"I feel Indy got lucky," Davis said. "I feel if I had stayed in the game, we could have won. I'm not saying I would have made the difference. If I had stayed in the game, I think maybe we would have stayed with the running game a little more."
Even with the loss to the Colts, the Redskins preserved their division lead because Dallas and the New York Giants lost as well.
NFL officials said yesterday that the Redskins can ensure themselves of at least a wild-card spot in the NFC playoffs if they beat the 49ers. A victory in San Francisco would give the Redskins an 8-4 record in conference play, guaranteeing them a wild-card spot in tiebreaker situations even if they finish with nine wins overall. Their regular season finale is Jan. 2 against an AFC team, the Miami Dolphins.
The Redskins would clinch the NFC East title if Dallas loses on Friday at New Orleans and they beat the 49ers. The Redskins beat the Giants twice this season and would win the division if they finish tied with New York. But the Redskins would lose a tiebreaker to Dallas by virtue of their two losses to the Cowboys this season.
"That's why you coach, not only to get in the playoffs but to win when you get there," Turner said. "We've been working to get to this point, to get to a game that gets us there. Now we have to find a way to win it."
A playoff appearance would be the Redskins' first in six seasons under Turner and probably would lead owner Daniel M. Snyder to retain Turner beyond this season. Turner declined to comment yesterday on reports that he would consider resigning and leaving for another NFL team even if Snyder decides to retain him, but he has told associates that he wants to remain with the Redskins.
"Our guys have done a great job of competing and fighting throughout this entire season, through some ups and downs and some distractions," Turner said. ". . . I'm excited, and I sense that [the players] are very excited."
Redskins' Playoff Picture
THE REDSKINS CLINCH A PLAYOFF BERTH:
With a victory over the 49ers Sunday.
HOW? A victory would give the Redskins a record of 8-4 in NFC play, guaranteeing them a tiebreaker edge even if they finish 9-7.
THE REDSKINS CLINCH THE NFC EAST TITLE:
With a victory Sunday and a Dallas loss Friday at New Orleans.
HOW? The Redskins win the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Giants, who could still tie the Redskins at 9-7 if they win their final two games. The Redskins would lose a tiebreaker to Dallas at 9-7 by virtue of their two losses to the Cowboys this season.