The games and the aspirations get bigger for the Washington Redskins by the week. But the task in front of them now is daunting, for they will have to patch together an offensive lineup to face one of the NFL's best defenses on the road when they meet the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in an NFC semifinal at 4:15 p.m. today at Raymond James Stadium.
The Redskins this season had hoped to just reach the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Now they're one win from the NFC championship game, and the anticipation is growing. As his players boarded buses yesterday afternoon at Redskin Park for the ride to Dulles International Airport and plane trip to Tampa, Coach Norv Turner said: "I woke up [yesterday] wishing it was Saturday."
Said Redskins wide receiver Michael Westbrook: "I don't want to go home. I want to be one of those four teams practicing next week."
Last Saturday, the Redskins added a playoff win to their list of accomplishments this season. They raced to a 27-point lead and coasted in beating the Detroit Lions, 27-13, at FedEx Field. But that game was at home against an 8-8 team on a four-game losing streak. Today will be a different story. The Buccaneers won eight of their final nine regular season games to secure the NFC Central title and a first-round playoff bye with a record of 11-5. They had the NFL's third-ranked defense during the regular season.
"This is what you do it for," said Redskins Pro Bowl guard Tre Johnson. "To win a game on the road in the playoffs would mean something. If we can do that, it would definitely add to our swagger."
The NFC East champion Redskins had the league's second-ranked offense during the regular season. But Pro Bowl tailback Stephen Davis is limping on a sprained left ankle and sprained right knee. Kipp Vickers is scheduled to make his first Redskins start at left tackle in place of injured veteran Andy Heck, and the team might have to turn to inexperienced backup Mark Fischer if center Cory Raymer is unable to complete the game because of a pulled rib-cage muscle suffered last Saturday.
"I think we're coming in here with a lot of confidence and a lot of momentum," Redskins quarterback Brad Johnson said. "But they've had two weeks to prepare for us, and they're probably pretty fresh right now."
Davis practiced only once this week, during a light workout Thursday. He won't test his injuries again until pregame warmups today, but Turner reiterated yesterday that he expects Davis and Raymer to start. Davis turned 15 first-half carries against the Lions into 119 rushing yards and two touchdowns before hurting his knee, and the Redskins probably need the NFC rushing champion to be more than a decoy today.
The Buccaneers limited 12 of their 16 opponents this season to 17 or fewer points, going 11-1 in those games. They were 7-1 at home, and didn't yield more than 17 points in a home game. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Warren Sapp said he expects the game to be decided by the matchup of the Redskins' offense against the Buccaneers' defense.
"That is where the ballgame is going to be won, right there," Sapp said. "We like that challenge because that challenge right there means the game is on us. And nine times out of 10 if you put the game on us, we are going to get it done. . . . [But] we haven't played an offense as balanced as this one is, with the big plays in the passing game and a great running back to go run through the gaps."
The Redskins hope that Davis is healthy enough that they can keep Tampa Bay's defense off balance by both running and throwing the ball effectively. The undermanned offensive line will have to deal with the stunts of the Buccaneers' defensive linemen and the blitzes of the linebackers and defensive backs.
"They're very disciplined," Tre Johnson said. "They're very focused. And they're very good. It's going to be a challenge."
Turner said: "They're going to create some bad plays. . . . When you've guessed right and you've got a chance to make a play, you'd better take advantage of it."
On offense, the Buccaneers want to grind out yards and chew up time on the clock by handing the ball to Pro Bowl fullback Mike Alstott. Tailback Warrick Dunn averaged only 3.2 yards per carry this season but is a dangerous receiver, and rookie quarterback Shaun King has demonstrated patience and composure while winning four of his five starts since taking over for Trent Dilfer.
"The quarterback is very impressive," Redskins defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said. "He doesn't crack under pressure. He's very poised back there."
Still, no rookie quarterback has won an NFL playoff game since Pat Haden in 1976, and the Tampa Bay offense almost certainly will rest its fortunes on the broad shoulders of Alstott.
"They run on first down," said Redskins defensive end Kenard Lang. "They run on second down. They run on third down. They run on third and 15. We have to stop the run."
NFC teams that won first-round playoff games are 1-17 in their second-round matchups against teams that got first-round byes. So the Redskins know the odds are stacked against them. But they beat the Buccaneers last season and believe they have a solid chance to beat them today, and victories by them and the Minnesota Vikings this weekend would leave the Redskins hosting the NFC title game.
"There was a real seriousness and a real focus at practice this week," Turner said. "That's what you're looking for. There's no question there's excitement. . . . Our players are confident. We had a good week of practice. This is why you're in it. I think our team feels that. It's a great opportunity."
CAPTION: Redskins Coach Norv Turner arrives at the team hotel in Tampa. "There's no question there's excitement. . . . Our players are confident. We had a good week of practice," he said.