It’s Monday, Dec. 31, 2012, and no, you’re not dreaming.
The Washington Redskins did in fact complete a seven-game win streak that culminated with a 28-18 victory over the rival Dallas Cowboys on a national stage to capture their first NFC East title since 1999 and punch their ticket for the playoffs.
In fitting fashion, the Redskins took the field for the 8:20 p.m. kickoff with no margin for error. The Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings won their games earlier in the day, and Washington had no other route to the postseason than to win.
Given the way the six previous weeks played out, you wouldn’t have it any other way, would you?
With the win over the Cowboys, the Redskins concluded the season with a 10-6 record – their first double-digit win season since the 2005 season (also 10-6), and Mike Shanahan’s first 10-win campaign since 2005, when his Denver Broncos went 13-3.
When they returned from the bye in Week 11, Shanahan, his coaches and the players all took on a do-or-die mentality, stressing the importance of executing well in all parts of the game. That’s exactly what the Redskins produced, during the six games leading up to last night’s contest, and again in the regular season finale. The victory was nothing short of a complete team effort.
There’s so much to go into, so let’s take a dive, why don’t we?
1.) Short-lived celebration – As the doors to the Redskins’ locker room opened to reporters shortly after the completion of the game, I expected to see and hear a celebration of possibly the franchise’s biggest win in 20 years. But there wasn’t. There were smiles. And most Redskins players – and owner Dan Snyder, who walked through the locker room, going up to many players individually and thanking them for their performances – all wore black NFC East champion ball caps. But otherwise, you wouldn’t have known this win was different than any of the other six during the streak. I walked up to fullback Darrel Young and asked what it meant to him to have just won the division. He shrugged and said, “Same thing it means for you: More work. You know. It’s just another step. We’ve still got more work to do.” Young went on to say that the victory came as no surprise. His teammates repeatedly said the same thing afterwards. The Redskins said it at the bye week, and it turns out, firmly believed that they were better than 3-6 and had the talent to rival any of the top teams in the league. In the last seven weeks, they have played the way they believe they should have all season long. So, they do draw some satisfaction from the win over Dallas, but, guarding against a letdown, they aren’t ready for this ride to end.
2.) More than a one-man show – Robert Griffin III has been the catalyst for change on offense, but the Redskins showed once again – and possibly more authoritatively than ever – that they are far from a one-man show on offense. Alfred Morris, the sixth-round gem of a running back assumed the leading role and ground out 200 impressive yards and three touchdowns on a season-high 33 carries. The once worrisome offensive line knocked Dallas’ battered defensive front off the ball. The Redskins used their tight ends to help pin crashing linebackers inside and create real estate on the edges. The Cowboys were determined not to get burned on the big-gainer play-action pass plays that did them in back on Thanksgiving Day. They played their safeties deep to take away the deep threat. So, what did the Redskins do? They pounded the ball and sprinkled in some underneath routes. The passing game didn’t click early on, and once Kyle Shanahan switched the gameplan to Morris, Morris and more Morris, it opened up plays through the air. Shanahan has said all preseason and regular season long that he envisioned his offense developing into an attack that can take whatever the defense gives them and go with it. The Redskins again proved themselves a multi-faceted attack that changes given the demands of the week.
3.) Griffin gimpy, but makes plays – It’s clear that Griffin is not himself. Even Mike Shanahan, who last week dismissed notions that his star quarterback was hindered by the sprained LCL in his right knee, admitted it. But, for a second consecutive game, Griffin found a way to make the contributions necessary to help lead his team to victory. Griffin completed only nine of 18 passes for 100 yards and no touchdowns, and posted a 66.9 passer rating – the lowest of his young career. But in the second half, he completed some key passes to move the chains, and more importantly, he didn’t throw any interceptions. Griffin lacked his usual sprinter’s speed, but he still averaged 10.5 yards a carry, finishing with 63 yards and a touchdown on six rushes. Griffin battled, and afterwards declared, “I was able to be effective.” Said Shanahan: “I don’t want to say he was a little bit slower, but you can see that he wasn’t his normal self when he was running. But he made enough big plays to give us a chance to win.”
4.) Masterful defensive game plan – Hats off once again to Jim Haslett, who rattled Tony Romo early and often (sacking him twice and hitting him another five times) and directed his defense to a fourth consecutive multi-sack, multi-interception game. The defense stepped up to make up for letdowns on offense (a three-and-out here and there) and special teams (favorable field position following big punt returns or missed field goal) and got stops and takeaways. Then, after the Cowboys scored on a short field and the offense had to punt on fourth-and-21 from the 50 with 3:41 left, Haslett’s gang answered the call again with Rob Jackson’s interception deep in Dallas territory. The Redskins recorded their seventh multiple-interception game of the season (tying the team record set in 1999). We saw Haslett go with a very aggressive approach against Dallas this time around. Unlike the Thanksgiving Day matchup, when he elected not to send as much pressure in the second half (partly because Washington has such a healthy lead – but wound up losing it), Haslett kept bringing the heat on Romo. He continually mixed up his coverages. He challenged his defensive backs to make plays by putting them in a lot of one-on-one situations as he brought max pressure, rather than providing help over the top. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall was given the task of following Dez Bryant all night long, and Hall responded by delivering possibly his best game of the season. He had three pass breakups and kept Bryant out of the end zone. A unit that gave up 27.6 points a game prior to the bye buckled down and limited teams to 20 points a game during the seven-game win streak.
5.) Playoff chances – The Redskins face and old friend, Seattle, in the first round of the playoffs Sunday. But unlike 2005 and 2007, when the Seahawks bounced Washington from the postseason both times, this game will be played at FedEx Field rather than what is now called CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks are 8-0 at home this season, but 3-5 on the road. This is a game that will feature very similar teams with two of the most highly-touted rookie quarterbacks in Griffin and Russell Wilson, and both teams like to establish the run on offense. Alfred Morris is the NFL’s second-leading rusher with 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns, and Marshawn Lynch is No. 3 with 1,590 yards and 11 touchdowns. Seattle’s defense is the fourth-best in the league, and the Redskins’ defense has been one of the best in the last seven games. Washington is expected to get Cedric Griffin back from suspension to help bolster a secondary that already is playing better. Seattle will be better than Dallas was, that’s a fact. But at this point, it’s hard to pick against the Redskins. They’re playing at such a high level and with a healthy confidence and stone-cold focus that you definitely get the sense that they have a chance to do something special and continue this run.