The Washington Redskins would rather excavate dirt than give up a point, and that’s a good and valuable quality. They’re great digger-inners, once they get a lead. But that’s not enough anymore. This is the point of the NFL season at which teams either go forward, or they get knocked straight backward. Defensive trenchwork won’t get it done.
With seven games left, this untrustworthy franchise still has ample opportunity to wind up 8-8, the mark that at times has seemed to be tattooed on their record book. You’d feel better about their playoff chances if they didn’t have such a history of cave-ins. You’d feel better if the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles didn’t look quite so capable of cutting into their two-game lead in NFC East. You’d feel better if Coach Jay Gruden sounded a little more bristly and less like he’s just hoping to hold on. Holding on won’t be good enough.
“I think the good thing about being 6-3, being in first place, is we control what we have to control,” Gruden said Monday. “We don’t have to look at the other teams. We just have to focus on what we do, and if we do our job, we don’t have to worry about anything.”
Worry about anything? The Redskins are a case of palpitating, bag-sucking worry that it will all turn out to be another bitter little joke. “Control” at this point is an illusion, and if the Redskins think otherwise, they have a false sense of security. They’re so weakly sporadic on offense, overly reliant on a bendable defense to force turnovers, and strafed by injuries that you can be pardoned for wondering if they’re even improvable at this point of the season, much less capable of a surge.
More importantly, their opponents are hardly minor considerations. Sure, up to now the division has been a bedpan in which nobody else is better than 4-5, and they have just two winning teams left on their schedule. But things are about to get tougher. They always do this time of year in the perennial mudbath that is the NFC East.
Let’s start with the Cowboys. This is not the same one-dimensional team the Redskins beat just 20-17 in October by stopping Ezekiel Elliott and hanging on by their fingernails. The Cowboys are suddenly explosive after trading for the sublime receiver Amari Cooper. And their schedule sets them up nicely for a potential stretch run, with four of their last seven at home.
In the past two games, the Cowboys’ offense has made an enormous jump. Check out these red-blinking danger signs: Quarterback Dak Prescott has completed 67.7 and 72.2 percent of his passes, and their third-down conversion rate has vaulted from a hapless 31.9 percent to 48.1 percent over the past two games. In two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to beat the Eagles on Sunday night, they went a perfect 4 for 4 when they had to have yards. All of which means that what the Redskins did last time won’t be nearly good enough when they meet in that crucial tell-all game in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day.
As for the Eagles, they’re a total trap. All five of the defending Super Bowl champions’ losses have come by seven points or fewer, three of them by fewer than four. Yes, they have the toughest remaining schedule in the league, facing five teams with winning records. But four of those games are against divisional opponents — two of them chop-lickers against the Redskins. Just the kind of circumstances that can make a team ready to cut you to pieces. Also, now Carson Wentz has the newly acquired Golden Tate to look for.
“Our division is right in front of us again,” Coach Doug Pederson says. “We have seven games remaining, and it’s a prideful group. That’s the thing. I trust those players in there. They’ll get it figured out.”
One of these teams likely will string together a couple of important wins. The Redskins aren’t going to clinch the division by digging in and place-holding, by clenching tight or hoping for a little celestial intervention. They certainly aren’t going to do it by giving up more than 500 yards and scoring just 16 points, as they did last week against lousy Tampa.
Somehow, they have got to find thrust, a way to land a forward-lunging punch, and deliver a knockout blow to their opponents. Otherwise, they are about to get floored.
“We got to connect on the explosive plays. We got to,” Morgan Moses said earlier this week. “. . . We need those plays. I know I’m not the only one that’s feeling it.”
No, he’s not. Everyone in the division is feeling the same way about them.
This is the point of the season when it all turns. Every team has suffered the inevitable physical chipping away at their rosters. This is when you find out which teams can survive it, and which are broken-backed. This is when you see which have the wherewithal to fill holes and fix weaknesses in mid-stride, and which devolve and fragment. This is when you find out who has energy left, and who will play mechanical and tired. This is when you see which teams are built soundly enough to charge forward, and which aren’t.