The first-place Washington Redskins will enter their Week 6 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles with some unfamiliar breathing room in the division standings. The last time the Redskins were in sole possession of the NFC East lead this late in the season was 1999.
Daniel Snyder had just bought the team. Norv Turner was head coach. Brad Johnson was the quarterback, and Darrell Green was helping a rookie named Champ Bailey learn the ropes. Current stars such as Ryan Kerrigan and Trent Williams were still in elementary school; Mike Sellers was in his second year in Washington.
“That wasn’t that long ago,” Josh Wilson, the Redskins’ 26-year-old cornerback, said Monday in the locker room.
“What were you, in the fifth grade?” Sellers said.
Sellers laughed. “I remember it well,” said the 36-year-old veteran. “We had a nice team. Our offense was extremely powerful. But our defense back in the day was a little lacking. But everybody felt good. We were confident in what we could do. It’s kind of like that right now. Guys are figuring out that we could really do some things.”
The 1999 team was the last Redskins squad to win a division title. This year's group enters Sunday’s game positioned comfortably. But they also know division crowns aren’t passed out at the season's quarter pole.
“We’re not even anywhere near half our goal,” said wide receiver Santana Moss. “I feel like right now, we played pretty good football the first quarter. We have three quarters left.”
While the Redskins sat idle last weekend, their position in the standings actually improved, thanks to losses by the New York Giants and the Eagles. Most analysts had the Eagles and Redskins pegged for opposite ends in their preseason rankings. Washington players and coaches know the Eagles don’t come to FedEx Field as a typical 1-4 team.
“We know they’ve got playmakers all across the field, both offensively and defensively,” said linebacker Brian Orakpo. “We can’t worry about the record.”
Sunday’s matchup comes before the Eagles’ bye week and could represent a final chance to insert themselves into the division race. A loss would leave them 1-5 and 0-2 in the division. It also comes a week after a disappointing 31-24 defeat at Buffalo.
“We know they're going to come in here with a bad taste in their mouth, and we're going to have to play one of our better games,” said Coach Mike Shanahan.
In the NFL, desperation can cut two ways. While the Eagles’ early struggles suggest they aren’t the powerhouse Philadelphia fans hoped for in August, they also can’t afford to leave Washington without a win.
“They’re going to come out, give us their best shot,” said cornerback DeAngelo Hall, “pull all the tricks out — plays that might’ve been saved for the playoffs or another point later in the season. I feel like we’re going to get everything they’ve got.”
The Eagles’ problem hasn’t been one of talent, nor have they had trouble moving the football (they are third in the NFL with 445 yards per game and first with 165 rushing yards). They just can’t hang onto it. The Eagles have 15 turnovers in five games. That’s more than any other NFL team and more than twice as many as the Redskins.
“People that are good are the ones that bounce back,” said Redskins defensive end Stephen Bowen. “I’m sure that’s what they’re trying to do.”
The Redskins have the fifth-best record in the NFC, but despite their wins, there are still plenty of problem areas. Only four teams in the conference are scoring fewer points per game — Arizona, Seattle, Tampa Bay, and St. Louis. Quarterback Rex Grossman has been inconsistent and coaches will have to make a choice this week between running backs Ryan Torain and Tim Hightower.
The defense, however, has been among the league’s best. In the NFC, only San Francisco's defense has allowed fewer points per game than Washington's.
“The defense has been playing lights-out. That helps,” said wide receiver Anthony Armstrong. “What we can do to help the defense out is just score more points.”
A win would give the Redskins a lot of momentum as they make their way down the schedule. Only four of their final 11 opponents (after the Eagles) currently boast winning records. After its 4-1 start, that 1999 squad went 6-5 down the stretch, which was still enough to capture the division title.
“Obviously, we’re very pleased with where we’re at right now,” Orakpo said. “We’ve accomplished some goals, but we’ve still got a long way.”