The Redskins on Monday night could have done something they seldom have been able to do: extend their lead in the division. It didn’t happen. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Sports columnist

Take all the time you need, Drew Brees, for the hugs and the photos and the midgame smiles at Peyton Manning’s message on the videoboards in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. This was your night, and it should be acknowledged as such. Don’t mind the Washington Redskins. They’ll just be out back, flipping over the dumpster that is the NFC East and scattering the trash all over a dark New Orleans alley, lighting fire to the idea they could have seized control of their fate.

This was an opportunity, and Washington was flat incapable of handling it. It’s what this franchise does. The Redskins don’t get out ahead of a season, take a lead in the division and then try to hold on. Not since Gibbs I, at least, and there are adult Washingtonians who don’t remember those days.

Instead, these guys muddle along, almost by definition. They have played the season’s first quarter at 3-1 or better exactly once in the past decade. So that’s exactly what they’re doing following their 43-19 dismantling at the hands of the New Orleans Saints and Brees, the quarterback who marked the occasion by eclipsing Manning to become the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards. They are muddling along, simultaneously hard to fully invest in but not so without hope that they can be completely dismissed.

All of the following are true: The Redskins are 2-2, with neither a winning nor a losing streak yet. They appear capable of winning or losing any of the remaining games on their schedule. They lost by more than three touchdowns in their first prime-time appearance of the year. And they lead the NFC East.

“I guess we’re still in the thick of things,” their coach, Jay Gruden, said rather unconvincingly. “We will be for a while.”

Redskins quarterback Alex Smith and Coach Jay Gruden look toward the field during the fourth quarter. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

What to make of all this? Well, it certainly says something about the landscape around them, which we’ll get to. But to start, be certain that they can’t currently handle this stage against what appears to be one of the few legitimate teams that the NFC has to offer. That’s also what makes the particulars of Monday night maddening. Yes, it was a blowout, and sure, people will and should talk about Brees and his record, because he had 300 yards passing before the third quarter was three minutes old. At 39, he can still sling it, and the Saints are fun because of that.

But in figuring out what lies ahead for Washington, think about how it behaved when Monday night’s game still hung in the balance (if you can remember back that far). The defense had the Saints stopped — three and out on their first possession — and then Josh Norman was called for holding, and New Orleans had an automatic first down. Four plays later, the Saints scored the game’s first touchdown.

Worse, Washington had the Saints dead on their next drive when Ryan Kerrigan sacked Brees. Yet here came safety Montae Nicholson, who must be a flat numskull. He was called for unnecessary roughness for — how to put his? — a boneheaded, unforgivable shove of Saints running back Mark Ingram. Then Washington made another third-down stop, this one inside the 10 — except Quinton Dunbar was called for holding.

Tough call? Who cares? The drive lived because of Nicholson’s foolishness. The Redskins have no case for injustice. And the Saints scored again.

“The first few drives, we give ’em — we give ’em — first downs,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “We give ’em 20 points.”

Running back Adrian Peterson managed just six yards on four carries; he added two catches for 36 yards. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

So there’s more to be disgusted with than just the final score. I mean, wide receiver Maurice Harris — in the lineup for (it’s official now) first-round bust Josh Doctson — was so wide open on one third-quarter play that he could have built a farm on the tract of unoccupied land around him. Yet quarterback Alex Smith was using the time to — I don’t know, take out a loan for his own property? Whatever the reason, Smith checked his watch, reset it and then delivered the ball unfathomably late. It was intercepted. Which was good, because it gave us the opportunity to notice Jordan Reed was in the game. Not because the talented tight end was actually targeted for a pass, but because he sprinted 60 yards to (temporarily) prevent a touchdown.

And then the play on which Brees sent the record, a 62-yard touchdown pass in which Tre’Quan Smith was one of — count ’em — two wide-open receivers on the sideline. Brees got to use it as a way to reminisce afterward. The Redskins used it as a point of tension, because Norman, the big-money cornerback, was nowhere to be found, and Gruden benched him to start the second half.

“That’s something we have to get corrected,” Gruden said. “It can’t happen in pro football. You don’t see that happen in pro football. We’re together too long. We’ve run the same coverage too many times. We have to coach it better. We’ve got to make sure that never happens again. That’s an absolute embarrassment.”

Well put.

The NFL is, of course, about moving on from performances each week. They could be exceptional. They could be lousy. (Just to be clear: Washington’s was lousy Monday night.) Move on. Carolina is up next. Washington could lose that game. But it also could win it. Which means it would still — remind yourself of this again — lead the division.

“You can’t play much worse than we played today,” Allen said. “Only way we can go is up.”

Here are the ranks of Washington’s NFC East opponents, before Monday night, in total offense: Philadelphia 21st, New York 25th, Dallas 28th. And total defense: Giants 21st, Eagles 23rd, Cowboys 25th. The division went 0-4 this week. The division just might stink.

And yet someone has to win it.

If you watch these teams, they all have issues. The difference was the anxiety in Philly, New York and Dallas came early Monday morning, not late Monday night. The Giants are a hot mess, 1-4 and with star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. openly wondering whether quarterback Eli Manning is holding the offense back. The bigger problem is that Beckham may have a point.

The Eagles can be excused for their Super Bowl hangover, but they lost running back Jay Ajayi for the season. More importantly, they’re having trouble working quarterback Carson Wentz — who has fewer Super Bowl MVP awards than backup Nick Foles — back in as the starter.

And the Cowboys? Ezekiel Elliott leads the league in rushing yards, yet Dallas can’t score — just seven touchdowns in five games. The struggles are significant enough that there are questions about whether Dak Prescott is really the long-term answer at quarterback, and if he’s not, that sets the franchise back even further.

Washington’s problems, when cast against that light? Not as bad. The Saints (4-1) just might be good. They joined just three other NFC teams with winning records at this point: the Los Angeles Rams (5-0), Chicago (3-1) and Carolina (3-1). So shove this disaster aside. After Sunday’s home game against the Panthers, know how many teams that currently have a winning record remain on Washington’s schedule? Two: Jacksonville and Tennessee, which are both 3-2 and come back-to-back in December.

Monday night was pathetic for Washington, and down here it served as the perfect stage to allow Brees to soak up everything he had coming to him. But if you need encouragement Tuesday morning, burn the film and look at two things: the division and the schedule. Both are manageable. Washington just needs to manage them much differently than it handled Monday night.