It’s being billed as Robert Griffin III’s first foray through the NFC East gantlet. But Sunday’s Redskins-Giants clash actually has the possibility of much, much more.
This is the weekend the Washington Redskins find out if they have genuine potential — playoff potential.
A victory over the New York Giants not only puts the Redskins atop the division with New York, it places them in the conversation of a truckload of NFL teams that are stuck in a morass of mediocrity.
There has never been so much parity in the league as there has two weeks before the halfway point of the season. For reasons Washington has little to do with, never has 3-3 looked so promising in the third weekend of October.
If you foresaw the Patriots and Packers with the same record as the Redskins, Rams, Dolphins and the Bills through Week 6, raise your hand.
If someone told you the Steelers would start 2-3 or the Saints 1-4, nod yes.
No one? Exactly.
Never mind these standings hardly resembling your grandfather’s NFL of two decades ago — this isn’t last year’s NFL.
Not a single dominant team, a New England or Pittsburgh or Green Bay from years past, has emerged. The Falcons remain as the only unbeaten but they haven’t once looked invincible.
Houston appeared awesome for a minute, but after last week, the Packers are still scoring on the Texans. The 49ers, after what looked like an early season aberration against the Vikings, were looking as formidable as anybody — until the Giants just emasculated them, holding Alex Smith’s offense to a field goal in his own park last weekend.
“I can’t remember a year that’s started off like this one,” said Charlie Casserly, the former NFL general manager now an NFL Network and Comcast SportsNet analyst. “You still got 10 games and some teams are going to begin separating themselves from the rest. But, no question, I don’t think many of us saw this kind of parity to begin with.”
Further, after the Giants won the Super Bowl last February after playing on wild-card weekend — they clinched the NFC East on the last day of the 2011 regular season at just 9-7 — has there ever been more of a crapshoot season in the NFL?
That whole if-you’re-in-it-you-can-win-it mantra applies more than ever.
If Washington can negotiate its path through injury and inexperience at key positions this season to somehow end up in the playoff conversation by late November or early December, who can definitively say an outhouse-to-penthouse finish isn’t at least conceivable?
Mike Shanahan can’t. He admitted this week, via ESPN, that the hope Griffin brings his first year reminds him of how people in Denver began believing in the possibility of a Lombardi Trophy the moment John Elway arrived via the draft.
“We got a guy who has a chance to take us to the promised land, and that’s what you want,” Shanahan said.
Could that happen this year? Unlikely, if we’re being honest. The injuries to Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker devastated a defense whose strength was originally predicated on its front seven and its presumed fearsome pass rush.
That was the only hope for an undermanned secondary in which DeAngelo Hall t is the No. 1 cornerback.
But then, no NFL teams historically gave up more yards and more points and still ended up in their respective conference championship games than the Patriots and Packers last season. They relied on their high-octane, fuel-injected offenses to offset their porous defenses.
Sound familiar? The Redskins suddenly have the No. 5 total offense and No. 3 scoring offense in the NFL. Their multi-threat, 22-year-old quarterback has one fewer rushing touchdown than the league leader, Arian Foster.
It’s why an early season matchup against the Giants looms so large. If the Redskins find a way to beat New York for the third straight time, expectations would grow almost exponentially. And they should.
“I thought they’d be a better football team this year, around .500,” Casserly said by telephone Friday. “I saw Robert Griffin III giving them a real chance at quarterback. I saw the schedule.
“Looking at where they were, and who they were playing, now I’m not surprised if they’re better than 8-8 at the end of the year.”
As much praise as Casserly heaped on RGIII, he doubled for the Shanahans.
“As good as he has played, Mike Shanahan and Kyle Shanahan have been better,” he said. “I think the Shanahans have been brilliant, especially the game plans.
“Every throw last week he had was a simple throw. The scheme was perfect. They used the option. That’s coaching. That’s schematic. Shanahan said he was going to do this when he got Griffin and he has.”
The notion of climbing out of the NFC East cellar for the first time in four years is not a given. But Sunday, against a Giants team already 0-2 in the division, could go a long way toward bigger and better things.
“Philadelphia and Dallas can’t get out of their own way the first six games,” Casserly said. “I still say the Giants are the class of the division. It’s a very tough matchup for them, especially with their secondary.”
Just six games into his career, Griffin hasn’t had the time to compile a body of work like Michael Vick or, for that matter, Eli Manning, his counterpart Sunday. But he has put the Redskins in the conversation of NFL teams with incredible upside — perhaps 2012 postseason upside.
If he and the Redskins want to keep their names there, they find a way Sunday against the Giants — not merely a divisional rival, but a defending Super Bowl champion that took the if-you’re-in-it-you-can-win-it mantra to heart.
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, please visit washingtonpost.com/wise.