With wide receiver Jerry Rice playing what could be his last home game in a San Francisco 49ers uniform Sunday, the Washington Redskins' biggest task might be keeping a lid on what could be an explosive farewell.
Pass defense hasn't been the Redskins' strength this season; they are ranked 27th in the NFL. But it will be critical against San Francisco quarterback Jeff Garcia, who threw for 303 yards in last week's 41-24 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Given the 49ers' weakness in the defensive backfield, the Redskins' passing game is expected to regain its form after slipping to eighth in the NFL. The Redskins' starting wide receivers were held to just five catches between them in last week's 24-21 loss to Indianapolis. Michael Westbrook (one catch) expressed frustration afterward over his limited role. And when the Pro Bowl selections were announced Wednesday, neither Westbrook, who broke his wrist midway through the season, nor Albert Connell was among them.
But Westbrook said yesterday that making the Pro Bowl has never been as important to him as playing a role that would help his team make the playoffs, which the Redskins (8-6) have failed to do since the 1992 season. A victory over San Francisco (4-10) would clinch that playoff berth.
"I was never out to make anybody's Pro Bowl," Westbrook said yesterday. "I was out there to have the best year I can, and let those things take care of themselves. Of course I need help. But if I don't get that help, so be it."
Coach Norv Turner believes Sunday's game will turn on how well Washington stops the 49ers' passing game and how productive the Redskins are in their passing game.
"Right now, obviously we're running the ball awfully well," Turner said. "If we can continue that, that's what we need to do. But we need plays out of our passing game."
The outlook for the Redskins' running game hinges on the playing status of running back Stephen Davis, the NFL's leading rusher (1,405 yards), who looks as if he won't start.
Redskins officials had hoped Davis would be able to run on a treadmill with relative ease on Thursday and practice yesterday after spraining his left ankle late in the second half against the Colts.
But Davis didn't practice yesterday, and was able to do only limited work on the treadmill. That means second-year player Skip Hicks likely will start.
If Davis plays at all, it will be in a limited capacity. Davis will remain on the team's active roster, which gives Turner leeway to make a substitution, if need be, as the game unfolds.
"If I didn't have hopes, I would have made him inactive," Turner said.
Redskins officials have been treating Davis's injury aggressively. Whereas a normal course of physical therapy for a sprain such as Davis's would call for treatment three days a week, Davis has been undergoing treatment each morning, midday and in the afternoon. That treatment includes massage, electrical stimulation to reduce pain and swelling and prescription anti-inflammatories. Davis has been given an electrical stimulation device to take home to treat himself in the evenings, too.
"I would have hoped that he would have been better," trainer Bubba Tyer said.
Davis said he still hopes to play if he could be effective.
"I don't want to be 85 percent or 90 percent and not run the ball well."
The San Francisco defense is ranked 26th in the NFL (compared with Washington's 28th), and is tied for 18th against the run.
Said Davis: "No matter who's playing running back--Skip or Brian Mitchell or Larry Centers--we just have to go out and execute. If we go out and do that, it doesn't matter what kind of defense they have."
Similarly, Westbrook said the receivers weren't putting much stock in the fact that San Francisco's pass defense is 28th in the NFL.
"They've got some guys back there that know what they're doing," Westbrook said. "Obviously they have a Pro Bowler back there. [Safety Tim McDonald, a six-time honoree, and free safety Lance Schulters, who leads the team with six interceptions.] Also, they're the San Francisco 49ers. That's quite a bit of history. You just can't take a team like that lightly just because of their record. They've got guys that can play. We're not going into this game looking for it to be easy."
Redskins Notes: The four inactives are guard Brad Badger, fullback Larry Bowie, tackle Jamie Brown and defensive tackle Barron Tanner.
Redskins at 49ers
When: Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
Site: 3Com Park, San Francisco.
TV: WJLA-7, ESPN.
Latest line: Washington by 7.
How the Redskins can gain a playoff berth this weekend:
TO GAIN AT LEAST A WILD-CARD BERTH
If Tampa Bay beats Green Bay AND Pittsburgh beats Carolina, the Redskins would clinch a playoff berth before their game with the 49ers.
TO CLINCH NFC EAST TITLE
Defeat San Francisco.
CAPTION: Sunday's game could be Jerry Rice's finale in San Francisco. Story, Page D4.