PHILADELPHIA — If the hair on the back of your football-loving neck is standing up, if you can’t wait for the Dallas flippin’ Cowboys to get to FedEx Field next Sunday for a winner-take-all game for the NFC East division title, then you’re far from alone. Every player in the amazed, delighted and semi-stunned locker room of the Washington Redskins is right there with you, their faces in wide grins after a sixth straight victory, 27-20, over the Philadelphia Eagles here on Sunday.
Anticipation for the Cowboys’ visit seems almost excessive, until you analyze how rare this particular set of circumstances actually is. When was the last time that the Redskins entered the last week of the regular season facing a home game with a head-to-head match to determine which team would finish first in the NFC East or, before that, in the old NFL Eastern Conference? Answer: Never. As in: Zero.
There have been complex, multi-scenario last-day finishes. And in 1939, the Redskins had a winner-take-all game against the Giants for the right to play for the world championship — but it was in New York.
So excuse the Redskins their jubilation. Or join it.
“Pandemonium at FedEx Field. The way you like it. It’s definitely going to be a playoff atmosphere,” said defensive back DeAngelo Hall, who invited the NFL to reschedule the game from 1 p.m. to the marquee 8:30 p.m. time slot in order to maximize television ratings (a decision they indeed made later Sunday night): “Let’s go ahead and flex this game. And we’ll make it real nice.
“Absolutely. We want to be the only show on TV. That’s a good feeling. Prime time, baby.”
Should the Redskins lose to Dallas, there are still ways they could make the playoffs, but only if multiple other teams lose. “Man, I just know we need to win next week,” said linebacker London Fletcher, dismissing all the permutations. “Tough life, tough game. You don’t get a chance to exhale.”
So, for the rest of the week, much of Washington will hold its breath.
The Redskins have had bigger games than their meeting with the Cowboys, including battles to see who would go to the Super Bowl. But after 20 years as the weakest of teams, by far, in the NFC East, this is the season, led by rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, when the Redskins feel they can reverse that division dominance. Since ’91, the Eagles, Cowboys and Giants have gone to the playoffs 12, 11 and nine times respectively. The Redskins: three. Is the pecking order about to flip?
Just 35 days ago, the Redskins were 3-6 and couldn’t get the time of day. Now, they see omens of a different future wherever they look. The showdown with the Cowboys “is what makes the NFL great. All the guys are excited,” said nose tackle Barry Cofield, whose deflected pass led to an easy interception for Fletcher that set up the Redskins’ first touchdown.
“We have beaten some really good teams. We can beat anybody, we can surprise anybody, on any day,” Cofield said. “We’re not playing to make the playoffs. We’re playing to win the Super Bowl.”
That seems an extreme goal for a team coming off a 5-11 season, especially since the Redskins depend so heavily on rookies. Against the Eagles, RGIII, playing with a knee brace after missing one game, threw two touchdown passes and had a 102.4 quarterback rating, virtually identical to his efficiency before he suffered a sprained ligament two weeks ago. Alfred Morris rushed for another pounding, contact-seeking, 91 yards, which gives him an utterly unexpected total of 1,413 for the season.
And place kicker Kai Forbath, picked up midseason, added two field goals on a windy day to make him 17 for 17. No kicker had ever started an NFL career with such a streak. Now, he has a ball headed to the Hall of Fame.
Such things will make a team change its image of itself, especially the sight of Griffin back at quarterback. “Get in line behind him and see him take us to the promised land,” said wide receiver Santana Moss, who caught a 22-yard touchdown pass, tapping both feet down an inch or less from the end-zone sideline for what proved to be the winning touchdown.
Without doubt, these are giddy days for the Redskins, who have had only two winning streaks of more than five games in 20 years and only four in the past 30 years. But in the NFL, there actually are such things as “red-hot” teams that believe the breaks of the game, and the big plays that need to be made, are finally rolling their way. Partly, it’s illusion. But it also tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“They expect to win the close games. That’s what’s different now. That’s where you feel really good,” Coach Mike Shanahan said. “Earlier [this season] we lost a few of those, games we had control of but couldn’t finish.”
The ending of this contest felt symbolic of a turn in the kind of hexed, bad-karma ill fortunes the Redskins have suffered for much of the past 20 years, but believe they are in the process of reversing. Knowing how to win is not magic. But it’s certainly knowledge that comes from experience.
With 23 seconds to play, the Eagles’ Jeremy Maclin was open by yards in the Washington end zone for what would have been a game-tying touchdown, but Eagles rookie quarterback Nick Foles chucked a wobbling duck of a pass that fell a yard short of the diving wide receiver.
“Maclin was open,” Fletcher said of what would have been a 17-yard scoring play. “What happened?” Told that Foles simply threw the ball poorly, Fletcher glanced skyward and said, “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky.”
The final seconds were full of misery for Foles, who said he didn’t “drive through” his throw to Maclin and that “I just have to take advantage of that.” Moments later, he nearly connected for a five-yard scoring pass that bounced off tight end Evan Moore at the goal line. Then, on third down, Foles made an almost inconceivable mistake, getting called for intentional grounding with one second on the clock — a penalty that resulted in an automatic 10-second “run-off” which, in this case, ended the game without another play.
“I just have to be smarter. It’s on me,” Foles said.
Those are words that might have come from struggling Redskins quarterbacks for years. But not anymore, not with Griffin in charge. “The brace is going to restrict you a little bit. It cut my mobility down a little,” RGIII said. “Still, it didn’t slow me down. I was able to do everything a quarterback needs to do.”
Griffin’s knee is the hinge on which the Redskins’ fortunes depend. After completing 16 of 24 passes for 198 yards with only one interception, when a high pass bounced off a receiver’s hands, Griffin may not be quite his most dynamic self. But that’s unlikely to dampen a party that the Redskins and their fans, without a division title in this century, have awaited for so long.
“We’ve got the recipe now. There’s no reason we can’t keep right on going,” Cofield said. Then he took a deep breath, stood to his full 6 feet 4, 318 pounds and said, “It’s a beautiful thing.”
For previous Thomas Boswell columns, visit washingtonpost.com/
More on the Redskins and the NFL :
Takeaway: Adding up to more than III
Gallery: Scenes from Lincoln Financial Field