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After Impressive Turnaround, Redskins Host Dallas With Shot At Playoffs

By ZAC BOYER

zboyer@freelancestar.com | @ZacBoyer

ASHBURN – Having lost six of their first nine games and facing the prospect of another weary winter in Washington, head coach Mike Shanahan gathered his team in the Redskins Park auditorium before it departed for its mid-November bye week and reminded it of its remaining schedule.

Shanahan

The Redskins had, two days prior, lost 21-13 at home to Carolina, which had won just one of its first seven games. It was a crushing defeat – one that Shanahan and his players characterized all week as a must-win, given the difficulties of qualifying for the playoffs with a 3-6 record.

Shanahan, though, never harped on the negatives. He merely pointed out that when the Redskins returned from their time off, they’d face their three NFC East opponents in consecutive weeks – first Philadelphia, then Dallas, then the New York Giants.

If they could win those three games, he said, they’d be back in the playoff race. He challenged the players to come back from the break determined, prepared and improved.

“Honestly, to be able to think that we’d win the division when we’re 3-6 after the loss to Carolina? It was definitely a down moment,” nose tackle Barry Cofield said. “The season was either going to go to hell at that point or we were going to fight back. You know, obviously, we are where we want to be.”

The Redskins won not only those three games, but the following three as well, polishing the smudges off an otherwise slick offense and reinforcing the deficiencies of a patchwork defense.

Tonight, they’re in a position that seemed improbable, if not impossible, a month and a half ago: If they defeat Dallas at home, they will qualify for the playoffs for the first time in five years and win the NFC East for the first time since 1999.

“Every moment in your life is the biggest one at that time,” quarterback Robert Griffin III said. “We look forward to having many more of these, but we’ve got to make sure we take care of this one.”

The Redskins embraced a win-or-go-home mentality through much of the winning streak, understanding that the margin for error was miniscule. The victories over division opponents were not only important in helping Washington gain ground in the standings, but also in earning what were, for a time, crucial tiebreakers over not only the Cowboys and Giants but also postseason candidates Chicago and Minnesota.

Indeed, if the Bears and Vikings each lose this afternoon, the Redskins will enter their primetime battle against their longtime rivals knowing that they will have clinched a playoff berth regardless of the outcome.

“This is the most important game of the year and we’ve played good teams throughout this stretch with must-wins – literal must-wins – and we’re where we can look at this game exactly the same as we have the last few games,” said tight end Chris Cooley, one of only seven players on the roster who were part of the Redskins’ last playoff appearance. “It’s an enormous game, but there’s not an added gravity to it because of what we’ve experienced the last six weeks.”

The Cowboys, at 8-7, cannot make the playoffs without a victory. That they are in position to advance to the postseason for the first time in 2009 is nearly as remarkable as the Redskins’ surge; after losing 38-31 to Washington at home on Thanksgiving, a game in which Griffin threw for 304 yards and four touchdowns, Dallas rattled off three victories before falling in overtime to New Orleans a week ago.

Though the rivalry between the teams has been muted in recent seasons, the nostalgia is ripe. In 1979, Washington held a 13-point lead with four minutes left in the final game of the regular season before Dallas rallied for a 35-34 victory and the NFC East title, sending the Redskins home. In 2005, Cooley caught three touchdown passes in the first half of a Week 15 matchup, prolonging a similar five-game winning streak that helped Washington into the playoffs and kept Dallas out.

“It is the biggest stage, but none of us are looking at it that way,” Griffin said. “Whenever you play the moment up too much, it can be too difficult to seize the moment, so you just want to make sure you don’t make something so big that you can’t grab a hold of it.”

What is sure to be a rowdy crowd at FedEx Field will not want the Redskins to miss out.

“These are the games you’ll remember for the rest of your life – win or go home,” Shanahan said. “[Later on], you go back and you think about the great experiences you had, or the bad memories you had, because you want to take advantage of these opportunities when they exist. They don’t come around every day – and when they do come around, you want to make sure that you play your best and you’re prepared.”

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