With the Washington Redskins manhandling the Miami Dolphins in yesterday's regular season finale at FedEx Field, fans didn't wait for the final score to start chanting, "We want Dallas! We want Dallas!"
It wasn't until after the Redskins' 21-10 victory that most learned Washington will face the Detroit Lions (8-8)--rather than the NFC East nemesis Cowboys--at 4 p.m. Saturday in the first playoff game held at the venue.
Though the matchup may lack the inherent drama of a Redskins-Cowboys pairing, facing Detroit, which lost to Minnesota yesterday, 24-17, might be in the Redskins' best interest.
Former Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen said as much in the locker room afterward. "If you have to play someone, you definitely would want to play Detroit--more than [Green Bay quarterback Brett] Favre, more than [Dallas quarterback Troy] Aikman," Jurgensen said.
It's not entirely clear who will be at quarterback for Detroit on Saturday after starter Charlie Batch reinjured his right thumb yesterday against Minnesota. X-rays showed no broken bone, but the swelling was so bad Batch couldn't continue. If he isn't healthy in six days, that means quarterback Gus Frerotte, who never managed to get the Redskins to the playoffs in his five seasons with the team, will lead Detroit's effort to keep the Redskins (10-6) from advancing to the second round.
Detroit has never beaten the Redskins on Washington's home field, where the Lions are 0-19--including two playoff losses. The Redskins ousted the Lions, 31-7, in a first-round playoff game in 1982. Washington also emerged victorious for the 1991 NFC championship, beating Detroit, 41-10.
But in the Redskins' locker room yesterday, where players and coaches celebrated the team's first regular season with double-digit wins since 1991, no one was taking the Lions lightly. It was just four weeks ago that the Redskins got stomped by Detroit, 33-17, in the Pontiac Silverdome.
"They're very good up front [on defense]," said tight end Stephen Alexander. "They're physical, and they get after you."
Added defensive end Ndukwe Kalu: "They kicked our butt on their turf. Now we have them on our turf."
Pressured by the Lions' defense and rattled by the raucous home crowd, the Redskins' offense played its sloppiest game of the year, committing 14 penalties, surrendering five sacks and turning over the ball four times against Detroit.
"We obviously had a tough time handling their speed and quickness," Coach Norv Turner said. "They're a very athletic defensive front, and that's something we're going to have to be able to handle."
The Redskins' defense had one of its better days, holding the Lions to just 31 yards rushing and allowing just one third-down conversion on 12 attempts. But Frerotte hit the crucial throws, passing for 180 yards--including a 66-yard touchdown.
"We did a good job against the run, but they hurt us with big plays in the passing game," Turner added. "Those are areas we're going to have to address."
Detroit's defensive backfield made it tough for Brad Johnson to find his deep receivers.
"In their secondary, it's not that they have one person that shuts down one side of the field," Johnson said. "They have a lot of guys that are very tenacious. They're always ballhawking; always stripping the ball away from you. They make a lot of plays. They're very intense back there."
After falling behind 20-10 in the first half, the Redskins all but abandoned the running game against Detroit. Stephen Davis carried just three times in the second half for eight yards.
The loss at the Silverdome reinforced what became increasingly evident as the season unfolded: The Redskins are most effective when the pass and run are nicely balanced. And yesterday's victory over Miami reinforced that the running game works best when Davis carries the ball. Backup Skip Hicks gained just 53 yards on 22 carries (2.4 yards per carry).
Davis, who missed the last two games of the regular season with a sprained ankle, will be back Saturday, as will wide receiver Albert Connell, who sat out yesterday with a shoulder sprain.
With the victory in hand, Turner couldn't help but imagine yesterday what FedEx Field will be like on Saturday, when Detroit faces the shrieks and cheers and madness of 80,000 Redskins partisans.
"The playoffs is as exciting as it gets," Turner said. "If you make a mistake that costs the game, it costs you a chance to play again. I think our guys will understand that."
Detroit is a familiar opponent to Johnson, who formerly played for the Lions' NFC Central rival Minnesota Vikings. Johnson played down the edge that may give him Saturday, just as he played down any notion of revenge.
"This game won't be about revenge," Johnson said. "It'll be about win or move on."
If the Redskins have an edge in the game, Johnson suggested, it may be the memory of the loss just four weeks ago. That alone should help players focus, knowing that they have to play their best.
"As a quarterback and as a team, you make a name for yourself by what happens in the playoffs," Johnson said. "Now we have a chance to do that."
Added right guard Tre Johnson: "We know it's about us. We know what we have to do. It's about winning the Super Bowl now. We can say it out loud now: 'It's about getting to the Super Bowl.' We've got three games to get there. And we've got to win."