For the Washington Redskins, the Dallas Cowboys' 31-24 loss to the New Orleans Saints Friday both heightened the stakes and relieved some pressure from their game tonight against the San Francisco 49ers.
With Dallas (7-8) all but out of the playoffs, the Redskins (8-6) can claim their first NFC East Division title in eight years by winning tonight. That would send them to the playoffs for the first time in seven years and be particularly meaningful after being swept by the Cowboys this season.
The Redskins could secure a wild-card playoff berth before even taking the field at 3Com Park, thanks to recent stumbles by other NFC teams. A loss by either Green Bay Packers to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Carolina Panthers to the Pittsburgh Steelers would send the Redskins into the postseason.
But the surest and most gratifying way for them to vault into the postseason would be handling matters themselves. Winning the division would guarantee at least one home playoff game and, in the process, meet the expectation owner Daniel M. Snyder laid down from the day he took control of the team this year.
Snyder intends for the team to make the playoffs. Anything less, he has said, would be cause to replace Coach Norv Turner. A victory tonight should amount to a reprieve for Turner, though it may not spare others on his staff from moves Snyder may want to make during his first full offseason as owner.
For the Redskins, the opportunity is golden against a San Francisco team that is 4-10. But Redskins starting running back Stephen Davis, the NFL's leading rusher, may not play because of a sprained ankle, and the 49ers likely will get a lift from fans who are thinking this could be 37-year-old wide receiver Jerry Rice's final home game in a 49ers uniform.
"What's at stake certainly changes" with the Cowboys' loss, Turner said yesterday. "What we have to do doesn't change. We have to go out and play a complete football game."
Through the 1980s and '90s, making the playoffs seemed a birthright for the 49ers, who missed the postseason just three times in 19 years. For most Redskins, it has been the stuff of dreams. With the playoffs so close at hand, Washington's chief foe could be overconfidence.
Guard Tre Johnson said the Cowboys' loss "puts more pressure [on the Redskins] from the standpoint that people . . . tend to get complacent when you hear that right before the game and think that, 'Okay, this game doesn't mean as much.' And it does. It's a very big game for us. . . . We have to go out as a team with passion and need to win the game as much as we had to before."
The Redskins have not beaten the 49ers this decade. But this San Francisco squad is a shadow of its former dynasty, stripped of quarterback Steve Young (concussion), running back Garrison Hearst (broken ankle) and defensive end Marvin Washington (ruptured quadriceps tendon). Injuries to various defensive backs have forced the 49ers to use seven combinations of starting cornerbacks and safeties this season.
"We've started players waived from other teams, we have tried rookies, have tried other free agents--you name it," San Francisco Coach Steve Mariucci said. "We've been searching like crazy to find the right combination. We haven't had much luck."
The 49ers' pass defense is ranked 28th in the NFL. San Francisco gave up 452 yards of offense in last week's 41-24 loss to Carolina and has surrendered 40 or more points in five of 10 losses.
Still, Turner stressed all week that the 49ers are not to be taken lightly. "They've got a lot of talented football players," Turner said. ". . . In the last three weeks, they've scored a lot of points ."
And the Redskins have woes of their own, beginning with Davis's ankle. Davis, who has 1,405 yards rushing, is questionable after suffering the injury in last week's 24-21 loss to the Colts in Indianapolis. Backup Skip Hicks likely will start.
The offense should benefit with the return of starting left guard Keith Sims. Teamed on that side of the line with veteran tackle Andy Heck, Sims has helped the offensive line hold opponents to 26 sacks--fewer than half the number (55) the Redskins had surrendered through 14 games last season.
Although the Redskins had to fly cross-country on Christmas for tonight's game, Tre Johnson said: "If we had to roller skate out there, we better be ready to win this game."
Emotions likely will be running high at 3Com Park. Rice, the top receiver in NFL history, leads the 49ers this season with 56 receptions, but 49ers General Manager Bill Walsh told the Contra Costa Times last week that the team's fans should not assume Rice will be with the team next season because of salary cap and personnel issues. Mariucci predicted "this place will be bonkers" when Rice is introduced.
Much like the 49ers, Rice is not his former self. Still, he remains formidable. "There's not a 37- or 38-year-old man in the world who has the same speed as he was when we was 27," Mariucci said. "Jerry is human now; he wasn't when he was 27. Is he still capable? You better believe it."
With little to play for but pride, Mariucci feels that should be enough. "If we can play well enough to win this game," he said, "then we can feel better about ourselves."
But not half as good as the Redskins would feel about the NFC East championship. "It's there for the taking, if we go out and make it happen," fullback Larry Centers said. "The playoffs are definitely a goal we set this season, back in training camp. Now, this is the door. All we have to do is turn the knob."
Special correspondent Kathy Orton contributed to this report.