In the first 10 games of this traumatic season, the Washington Redskins played the NFL's toughest schedule, and they have the hospital visits to prove it. They stunned a few good teams, found a few innovative ways to lose, and, of course, they did what they do best, tormenting those addicted to them by extracting the heart of the fandom and playing hot potato with it.
Followers have experienced a season's worth of drama and plot twists, and there are still six weeks remaining. For a good while, the suspense kept you coming back despite the team's mediocrity. But after the collapse in New Orleans on Sunday, after a possible season-changing victory devolved into a debacle, you see a 4-6 team with vanishing playoff hopes and a question it must answer before taking the field again Thursday: What's left to play for?
Well, if it's any consolation, the hard part is over. The words don't seem very comforting right now, but they are true. When it trudged out of the Superdome late Sunday afternoon, Team Torture exited the most vicious portion of its schedule.
It has been a gantlet. After Monday night's game between Seattle and Atlanta, the combined record of Washington's first 10 foes is 63-37, an opponent winning percentage of .630. Washington has played 9-1 Philadelphia twice. It has played two 8-2 teams, Minnesota and New Orleans. It beat the 7-3 Los Angeles Rams in Week 2. Even with 1-9 San Francisco in this cluster of games, Washington has played the toughest schedule in the NFL, according to teamrankings.com.
Certainly, these games have left you with a long list of this team's nots: not consistent, not good at running the football or defending the run, not good at throwing to wide receivers, not good at home, not good at holding leads, not capable of closing halves like a sane team, not predictable, definitely not healthy. Washington is resilient, and that's cool, but it has had opportunities to squeeze more out of this season. It has failed. And because this is professional sports, you can't explain that away by pointing at the injury list. The only valid defense is to make the case that this challenging 10-game slate has exaggerated the shortcomings.
Okay, so if the strength of competition has created a distorted impression, then it is clear what Washington must prove over the remainder of this season.
The cream of the NFL showed us what the Redskins are not. Now, in six manageable games (at least on paper), they must show us what they are.
In their final six games, they don't play a team that has a winning record. They face the New York Giants (2-8) twice, starting with this Thanksgiving matchup from hell. They visit Dallas (5-5) and the Los Angeles Chargers (4-6) and host Arizona (4-6) and Denver (3-7).
Those opponents have combined for a 20-40 current record, which is a .333 winning percentage. Softer? Yes. But in the parity-driven NFL, records don't guarantee anything, and easy is a misguided concept. Besides, you could give Washington a Bugatti Veyron sports car, have it race a bicycle with training wheels and still be nervous about the outcome. Still, if Washington is a focused and well-coached team determined to prove how much fight it possesses, it should fare well down the stretch.
What's left to play for? It's not just pride. The direction of this franchise is at stake. I still believe that Washington should err on the side of patience and have the guts to continue a gradual rebuild, but the team has to keep proving it is worthy of such a long wait. It can't fall apart in the final six games.
The bar isn't even that high. At minimum, Washington should be expected to win half of its final six games. A 4-2 record is a better standard. Winning five of six or even sweeping and making a dramatic playoff push are taxing demands, but they're not ridiculous.
Let's put it more simply: Washington should exit this season feeling like it is a rising team again. It should go into the offseason feeling like it is primed to be a playoff team next season. If the players and coaches don't show improvement and provide tangible evidence of a developing winner, then everything must be reconsidered. That goes for Coach Jay Gruden and quarterback Kirk Cousins, both of whom I've treated very well in this space. That goes for every aspect of this team, really.
Once this season is over, the front office has to pick a direction because so many potential free agents as well as former draft picks will be eligible for extensions. At 4-6, there isn't much reason to bring back most of these core players. Could that change if the team gets to 8-8 or 9-7? It depends on how that would happen, but yes, it would be easier to commit.
"I feel like we have a lot of warriors on this team, guys who are winners and want to compete every single play," tight end Vernon Davis said. "Weeks like this can really test your character and test who you are as a man. How will you respond?"
The response means everything to the future. Washington likes to present itself as a team of fighters that has endured hard luck against a brutal schedule. The players have a belief that, with fewer injuries and a more balanced schedule, they could impress you. Here's their chance. Every remaining opponent is either at Washington's level or below it. Dallas, which already came to FedEx Field and won, is different now that running back Ezekiel Elliott is serving a suspension. Denver probably has a more impressive roster, but the Broncos have lost six in a row, and John Elway — the Hall of Famer who built the team — is calling his players "soft."
This being the NFL, there figures to be one team from this six-game cluster that will make a run and end up being a more dangerous opponent than you think. I'd bet on the Chargers, who just put 54 points on Buffalo and have suffered some Washington-like heartbreakers in their six losses.
Nevertheless, the final six games represent an opportunity for Washington to change the current perception of its season. And if the team can't do that, well, say some preemptive prayers.
"We have no choice but to keep grinding and keep battling," Gruden said.
Despite all that has happened, every piece of insight about this team is incomplete. The hard part wasn't as bad as advertised. It might have been worse because it included a lot of woulda, coulda, shoulda.
So what's next? Is this the easy part? Is this when Team Torture quiets all arguments against it and gives the season balance? Or will this be the collapse after the collapse?
No pressure, but the direction of the franchise may hinge on the answer.
Read more Redskins coverage:
Jerry Brewer: For Redskins, a 54-minute game leads only to pain
Dan Steinberg: I seriously cannot believe the Redskins just lost that game