Each loss in the Washington Redskins' recent three-game slide was a last-minute heartbreaker, but one in particular holds potentially devastating playoff ramifications -- and makes winning Sunday in Arizona even more imperative.
The Redskins' Week 10 loss at Tampa Bay, the current front-runner for the top NFC wild-card spot, on a controversial two-point conversion, is the difference between the Redskins' ability to control their postseason destiny and their current plight, in which they will likely require help from other foes to qualify. That 36-35 defeat on Nov. 13, much more than the ensuing losses to Oakland and San Diego, is the primary reason the Redskins' postseason chances remain murky even after Sunday's win in St. Louis.
With four games to play, it is impossible to project the six clubs that will represent the conference in the playoffs, and the teams currently in the hunt for the two wild-card positions -- Tampa Bay (8-4), Minnesota (7-5), Dallas (7-5), Atlanta (7-5) and Washington (6-6) -- all face tough games down the stretch. But had Washington managed to hold its fourth-quarter lead in Tampa, the Redskins would be in the primary wild-card spot if the playoffs started today, since they and the rest of this pack would be 7-5 overall. Washington would have had the edge, though, because of tiebreaker victories over Dallas and the Buccaneers, as well as a 7-1 record against the NFC that would also surpass its wild-card rivals.
As it stands, the Redskins' 6-2 NFC mark is one of the primary factors in their favor even as they trail the Vikings, Cowboys and Falcons by a game in the standings, and it makes defeating the Cardinals (4-8), perennial NFC West doormats, essential.
"If we don't win this one, we're done," quarterback Mark Brunell said.
The Redskins finish the season with three games against NFC East opponents, and while that stretch could bolster faint hopes of catching New York for the division crown, the three games would be rendered essentially irrelevant with a loss at Arizona.
"NFC games are huge, division games are even bigger and when it comes down to it, every game you win makes the next one bigger," tackle Jon Jansen said. "We know if we win this one, it's going to make that Dallas game huge, and if we win that one, we move on to the Giants. We have things in front of us we can accomplish. If we do our jobs and play good football, then there's going to be good things at the end of the year for us."
Coach Joe Gibbs is taking the same guarded approach that he took with his team last week when it was entering the game with the Rams, another middling outfit. He and his staff are reinforcing the importance of thinking only about the Cardinals and eliminating talk about future games and playoff ramifications. Gibbs said he does not watch the scoreboard or focus on outside games on Sundays, and forbids anyone from watching other games -- such as Sunday's Dallas-New York game, for instance -- in the locker room before the Redskins play. Washington's game will start at 4 p.m. Eastern time again this weekend.
"You use energy looking at games like that," Gibbs said. "You get caught up in it. We all do. So what we try to do is just focus on what we have to do."
Gibbs conceded that he has peeked at the schedules of the other teams jockeying for playoff position, and has sized up their remaining games.
"If you look at any of those schedules, and, yes, I've glanced at them, I would say all of them tell me one thing: You're not going to know from week to week," Gibbs said. "It's going to swing from week to week, and you're not sure what's going to happen. But I'd be willing to say if we can win this week, somewhere in there something good is going to happen for us in the schedule. That's my approach."
Several of the wild-card hopefuls face challenging tasks. Computing the total wins of their remaining opponents yields little, as that total is nearly identical for Washington, Dallas, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Atlanta. All face upcoming games with division leaders, and only the Vikings have more home than road games remaining. Getting too caught up in those numbers can become a distraction, however, several veterans said.
"I think everybody looks at that, and we were doing that for a while," Brunell said. "But I think what's important is that we just worry about ourselves, and hopefully things will take care of themselves and will work out. But I think we've really switched gears, this team has, I know offensively, forgetting what the other teams like the Giants and Dallas, who they all play, watching the scoreboards. We're really more focused on ourselves, which I think is a good thing."
The Redskins have not won road games on consecutive weekends since 2001, and have not made the playoffs since 1999. Many players on the roster have not experienced a true playoff race before, and those who have, like Jansen, say this team has accomplished nothing yet. Dominating the fourth quarter and putting away the Rams was a positive step, but there is much still to do.
"We have to go out and prove we can do it against teams that we should have success against," Jansen said. "We need to prove that we're a good team, and we haven't done that yet."