Fifteen games down. One more to go. Although the Washington Redskins don’t want their regular season finale against the New York Giants to be the end, they’re not guaranteed another game — for now.
It’s been a strange year in the NFL, and Washington’s season falls in line. Multiple variables will impact whether the Redskins will make the playoffs for the second straight season, but they’ll need to exit FedEx Field with a victory on New Year’s Day to have a chance at the sixth seed in the NFC wild-card race.
Even if they win, the Redskins will remain powerless as they await the result of Sunday night’s game between the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions. As long as those teams don’t tie, 2016 would then be deemed a successful season for Washington.
“We obviously wouldn’t think of it as a successful season unless we get in the playoffs, that’s for sure,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said Monday. “That’s our goal coming into the season. We went to the playoffs a year ago and had every intention of trying to win the division and go back to the playoffs. Obviously, the Cowboys played very, very good football for  games, and they deserve to be where they are, but we’re still trying to get in there.
“I think anytime you don’t make the playoffs — regardless of your record — it’s a bit of a disappointment. We have a good team. We have good players, and we feel like we should be in there. But we still have work to do, and it’s not over yet.”
The Redskins are somehow a win, and some minor help, away from playing a 17th game this season despite their 0-2 start. Washington crawled out of that hole to remain in the playoff picture throughout the season, but it put itself in a position where it needed assistance because of its own inconsistencies during Gruden’s third season as head coach.
A fairly young Washington team reeled off four straight wins, and it was sitting pretty at 6-3-1 with six games remaining. It wasn’t playing well in all three phases during its best stretch of the season, but it still found ways to pull out victories in tightly contested games.
It also dropped three of four games heading into Week 16, leaving its playoff fate in the hands of other teams during the final two weeks of the season.
“Interesting, that’s for sure,” Gruden said when reflecting on the first 16 weeks. “It’s been fun coaching these guys. We’ve had our ups and downs, for sure. We’ve handled adversity. We’ve played really well at times and not played well at times. It’s kind of been like our own mini roller-coaster ride, to be honest with you. But I like where we are.”
The Redskins have seemingly played better in the face of adversity. When they needed a win to avoid an 0-3 start, the Redskins escaped MetLife Stadium with a two-point victory over the Giants. In a must-win situation to remain in the playoff hunt, Washington defeated the Chicago Bears on Christmas Eve to make its season finale meaningful.
But if the Redskins don’t make the playoffs, they will look back at a few crucial outcomes throughout the season that didn’t go their way. Their defense couldn’t make a stand in the final minutes of a Week 7 loss at the Lions. Place kicker Dustin Hopkins missed a 34-yard field goal late in overtime during Washington’s tie with the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 8.
In just the past four games, the Redskins put together two of their most disappointing performances of the season against NFC opponents with losing records, falling to the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers in games that would’ve given them a firm grip on one of the two NFC wild-card spots.
“That happens sometimes with certain teams,” defensive end Chris Baker said after Saturday’s win over the Bears. “It would’ve been better if we could’ve handled our business like this last week [against the Panthers] and been in the driver’s seat, but it is what it is. You’ve just got to take care of your business and hope for the best.”
It placed the franchise, and its fans, in situations where they had to pull for the Cowboys to win, for a second straight week, for help snagging a playoff spot. Washington’s rival indirectly influenced whether Gruden defines this season as a success or a failure.
A strange year, indeed.
“It’s hard to root for Dallas,” Gruden said with a chuckle before the Cowboys’ home game against the Lions on Monday night. “But, no, it’s fun to watch until the bitter end and see what happens. But we’ll see what happens.”