The Washington Redskins spent yesterday resting from an overnight celebration on their airplane ride home from San Francisco, and savoring Sunday night's 26-20 overtime triumph over the 49ers that clinched their first NFC East championship in eight years and virtually ensured that Coach Norv Turner will return next season.
The Redskins will host at least one NFC playoff game, and still have hopes of getting a first-round bye and hosting a second-round playoff game at FedEx Field. First, though, they'll play their regular season finale against the Miami Dolphins at home on Sunday, and Turner and the team's other decision-makers will have to decide whether to rest quarterback Brad Johnson, tailback Stephen Davis and other key players if the game is meaningless to the Redskins' postseason situation.
Those decisions probably won't be made until Sunday, however. Yesterday was a day for the Redskins to feel good about what they've accomplished this year in ending the franchise's six-season playoff drought. They returned to the site of their last playoff game--a 20-13 loss at San Francisco on Jan. 9, 1993, in Joe Gibbs's final game as coach--and exorcised some of their demons of the past few seasons.
"It was a great feeling," veteran running back Brian Mitchell said yesterday, a day off for Redskins players except for those who needed to have injuries treated at Redskin Park. "I can remember going out there in '93 for the playoffs, and we lost. That was a long trip back. To pull that game out [Sunday] and fly back, I would say it was a party in the air at 30,000 feet."
Sunday's win means that Turner almost certainly will be back next year for his seventh season as the team's head coach. Team owner Daniel M. Snyder has told associates that he will make good on his pledge to Turner that he would retain the coach beyond this season if the Redskins reached the playoffs for the first time since the 1992 season. Turner, whose contract runs through the 2001 season, reiterated yesterday that he wants to return.
Snyder was traveling home from San Francisco yesterday and not available to comment. Snyder gave Turner a game ball during an emotional postgame celebration Sunday night, but Turner emphasized the victory was not about personal vindication. He talked about the "fine line" between being in the playoffs and not being in the playoffs, as illustrated by the fumble forced by Redskins linebacker Shawn Barber late in regulation Sunday when the 49ers were positioning themselves for a potential game-winning field goal.
"You take everything personal in terms of how people feel about you, what they say about you and all that," Turner said. "But . . . one play like that and you go from being a guy who hasn't coached in the playoffs to being a guy who has coached in the playoffs."
It was an emotional day for Turner on Sunday. The Redskins had clinched a playoff berth before they took the field--and played like it in trailing 13-7 at halftime. Turner delivered a fiery halftime speech in which he implored his players not to back into the playoffs.
"I challenged our team at halftime," Turner said. "I told them the next 30 minutes would be with them for a long time and define where we are as a football team in a lot of ways. When you can answer that challenge and step up and play the way we played and make the plays we made and then win the football game, it helps you in confidence [and] helps you in terms of momentum."
Turner also was emotional in the jubilant postgame locker room. The celebration began with linebacker Derek Smith dancing atop a locker. Snyder hugged Johnson, who threw for a team-record 471 yards, and was hoisted off the ground by guard Tre Johnson.
The Redskins overcame a 20-10, fourth-quarter deficit and won because Brad Johnson's passing enabled them to compensate for the absence of Davis, who didn't play because of a sprained left ankle. Davis said yesterday he hopes to play against the Dolphins, but acknowledged there's a chance he could remain sidelined to rest for the playoffs.
"Hopefully I can play this week," Davis said "It just depends on the situation we're in."
The Redskins can get the first 10-win season of Turner's coaching tenure by beating Miami, and Turner said he thinks it's important for the club to play well heading into the playoffs. The Dolphins will be jockeying for playoff position, and NFL etiquette dictates that the Redskins do their best to win.
But they likely will know before their 4:15 p.m. kickoff whether the game has any postseason ramifications for them. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play at Chicago at 1. And if Tampa Bay wins, the Redskins no longer could get a first-round bye.
"That's going to be discussed as the week goes on," Turner said of the prospect of resting certain players. "I just want a sense of urgency from our football team in terms of getting ready to play."
Whether it's in the first round of the playoffs or the second round, the Redskins' first division title since the '91 season will give them their first postseason game at home since Jan. 12, 1992. The Redskins and virtually everyone else in the league seems convinced that the NFC playoffs will be wide open, even with the 13-2 record of the St. Louis Rams.
"To go back [to the playoffs] is a great feeling," Mitchell said. "I keep telling guys we have one game left in the regular season but when you get into the playoffs, it's a new season and it doesn't matter if your record is 14-0 or if you have the worst record getting into the playoffs. That doesn't mean you can't take it all the way. If we start jelling at the right time, you never know what is going to happen.
". . . Any team can be beat at any time. The Rams have been playing real well . . . but I don't think they have faced the really stiff, stiff competition that they're going to face when they get into the playoffs."
Staff writer Josh Barr contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Larry Centers scored overtime touchdown that sealed the NFC East title for the Redskins Sunday night.