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STEVE DeSHAZO: Redskins learning how to win games

LANDOVER, Md.—On the first play from scrimmage in Monday night’s critical NFC showdown, Pierre Garcon got a step on two New York Giants defenders, but Robert Griffin III’s heave sailed just a yard or so too far.

Just like the Washington Redskins themselves, the pass fell incomplete. But in the forgiving NFC East, where no team even vaguely resembles the powerhouses of old, you don’t have to be great to be a contender.

In the biggest game in Mike Shanahan’s nearly three-year tenure as coach, the Redskins’ deficiencies were on display—this time in front of a national audience. But they weren’t fatal, and for the first time in four years, December games will be meaningful.

Washington’s beleaguered defense still can’t muster much of a pass rush. The Giants have allowed an NFL-low 15 sacks this season, and the Redskins have played all season without Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo. So it wasn’t surprising that the Redskins rarely got within shouting distance of Eli Manning for most of the night.

But when they needed it most, Rob Jackson and Ryan Kerrigan flattened Manning in the fourth quarter, making the Giants give up the ball.

In the first half, the Redskins’ defense did less to stop New York than the Giants halted themselves. A false-start penalty forced New York to settle for a field goal on its first drive, and Manning’s intentional grounding call short-circuited their next possession, which ended in a missed kick.

That helped prove that this edition of the Giants isn’t perfect, either. And Monday night, for a change, they didn’t have the best quarterback on the field when they faced the Redskins.

As long as he’s healthy, Griffin will make the Redskins compelling and competitive. And Mike and Kyle Shanahan deserve credit for finding innovative ways to exploit not only Griffin’s unique abilities, but fellow rookie Alfred Morris’. For a sixth-round draft pick, running behind a makeshift offensive line, to reach 1,000 yards in 12 game—something Larry Brown, Mike Thomas nor Stephen Davis never did as rookies—says something about both the Shanahans’ scheme and opponents’ respect for Griffin.

But neither rookie is perfect. Both Griffin and Morris fumbled Monday night, albeit with mixed results.

Griffin seems to have an angel watching over him. When he lost the ball at the end of a 12-yard option run late in the first quarter, the ball fortuitously bounced directly to receiver Joshua Morgan, who alertly snagged it without breaking stride and scored his first touchdown as a Redskin.

Morris wasn’t so fortunate. With the Redskins marching toward a potential go-ahead touchdown in the third period, he coughed up the ball for only the second time in 218 attempts. The Giants recovered and marched 75 yards for an insurance field goal.

But the true measure of a player—and a team—is responding to adversity. Griffin made no mistakes in the second half, completing a go-ahead 8-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon in the fourth quarter and hitting Garcon again for 17 yards on Washington’s final clock-killing drive.

Morris atoned for his giveaway by continuing the tough running that has endeared him to Washington fans, grinding out 124 yards amd picking up the late first down that allowed the ecstatic Redskins to assume the victory formation.

Best of all, the Redskins are learning how to win— something they haven’t done consistently for a while. Joe Gibbs’ veteran teams made late playoff pushes in 2005 and ’07, but this is a different squad.

Imperfect, yes, but undaunted.

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443