With a Redskins win and a Chicago Bears loss, Washington would move into position for a wild card berth.
Cleveland could pose a problem, however. The Browns are on a win streak of their own, having reeled off three straight and four of their last six. Cleveland also has won four of its last five home games.
Here are five storylines to follow in this week’s game.
1. Robert Griffin III’s availability, effectiveness – The rookie quarterback dodged a major bullet when he emerged from last Sunday’s game with only a Grade 1 LCL sprain rather than a season-ending torn ligament. He has made progress each day, but it remains to be seen if he will receive clearance to play. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said he expects Griffin to show coaches that he can move effectively. But the question comes down to how much – if any – risk for a more severe injury the are Redskins facing by playing Griffin. If he does receive clearance to play (Griffin said on Wednesday that he felt “really good” about his chances of doing so), how effective will he be given limited practice? Will he be able to remain aggressive, or would the injury remain prominent in his mind and cause him to play tentatively? What type of a game plan would Shanahan put together to help protect his quarterback?
2. Cousins’s role – If Griffin does play, a better-prepared Kirk Cousins will be waiting to enter the game in the event that his fellow rookie is unable to finish the game. If Griffin does not play, it would mark the first start of Cousins’s young NFL career. He has taken more first-team snaps this week and views any playing time as an opportunity to showcase his skills for the Redskins’ coaches and other teams around the league.
3. Alfred Morris’ production – A big day from Alfred Morris will likely be key to Washington’s success regardless of which quarterback plays. The Redskins are 6-1 in games that Morris receives 20 carries or more. Getting him going against Cleveland will take a good deal of playmaking pressure off of the quarterback, and it will set up the play-action attack. The defense will key on Morris rather than Griffin/Cousins, and that will open up big pass plays downfield. The Redskins boast the top rushing attack in the league, averaging 168.1 yards a game. Cleveland’s defense, meanwhile, ranks 17th against the run, allowing just more than 120 yards per outing. Washington’s offensive line has done well in the run-blocking department. They need to have one of their better outings both in the run and pass game this week.
4. Defensive backing – If Griffin’s playmaking ability is diminished because the offense becomes more predictable with his reduced threat to run the ball, or if Cousins happens to struggle, Washington’s defense must rise to the occasion and limit the big plays that Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden and top receiver Josh Gordon like to hook up on. Washington’s defense averages close to two takeaways a game. The Browns, however, average 1.5 turnovers a game, and to his 13 touchdown passes, Weeden has 15 interceptions. Look for Jim Haslett to mix up his coverages and looks to try to confuse the rookie quarterback into mistakes. The Redskins’ defense has been at its best in the second half of games lately, giving up a combined 10 points to the Giants and Ravens in the third and fourth quarter. Producing a similar effort over the course of a whole game would be huge. Washington also needs a strong showing from its kick and punt coverage units, as it will face talented return man Josh Cribbs, who ranks among the top 10 on kickoff returns and top five in punt returns.
5. Playoff race – As mentioned, the Redskins can make some strides toward their first playoff berth since 2008 with a victory Sunday. Washington currently sits a game back of the Giants for the NFC East lead. The Giants play at Atlanta, taking on a Falcons team looking to rebound from an embarrassing loss to Carolina last week. The Redskins also are a game back of Chicago for a wildcard spot. The Bears, who have lost two straight and four of their last five, host NFC North rival Green Bay on Sunday.