Washington Redskins: 5 Games They Must Win to Make the Playoffs

Aidan Reynolds@@aidanreynoldsContributor IIIJuly 31, 2012

Washington Redskins: 5 Games They Must Win to Make the Playoffs

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    Mike Shanahan has said it. Kyle Shanahan has also said it. The Washington Redskins are of the opinion that they will be challenging for a playoff spot this year.

    Fans have been saying this since the arrival of Robert Griffin III, of course, but now it seems that more people are catching up, and buying into the belief that this is a playoff-caliber team.

    Even Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, who had previously predicted a 3-13 season for the team, has re-evaluated his opinion to state that they have a chance to go 9-7 in 2012.

    For what it's worth, I don't see this happening. There are too many things that need to go just right, and a rookie quarterback is still a rookie quarterback, regardless of who he is—so there will be mistakes made along the way.

    I’m also a little concerned about the slow accumulation of injuries that the team has suffered since training camp began.

    That said, there's no denying that the Redskins are a stronger team than they were last year, and I'm certainly not counting the playoffs out.

    However, in order for this to happen, there are certain games that they need to win, for a variety of reasons. Posting a .500 record within the division is crucial, which means that FedEx Field needs to be a fortress this year.

    For the purpose of this article, I’ve moved away from the NFC East, and have instead picked five games from the remaining fixtures that the Redskins must win in order to make the playoffs.

Week 1: at New Orleans Saints

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    Although it may seem absurd to think that the Redskins have to beat the Saints in Week 1 to make the playoffs, the importance of momentum in sports cannot be overlooked.

    Should the Redskins win this game, it’s the perfect start for the 2012 campaign. Beating a team like the Saints would give them a huge confidence boost going into the year.

    Usually I wouldn’t suggest that the Saints are vulnerable, but there won’t be a better time to play them than Week 1.

    Following the bounty scandal and the subsequent suspensions of coaches and players—along with Drew Brees’ protracted contract negotiations— the Saints don’t have the aura of invincibility that they once had.

    Of course, the other option is that the Saints come out with fire in their throats, using the scandal as a motivator, but the limited time they have had to combat the penalties imposed makes inconsistency a high probability.

    Sean Payton is an excellent coach, and there is no doubt that the team will miss his leadership, and although Drew Brees’ is an elite quarterback—who will no doubt get the team through a lot of tough spots—if there is to be inconsistent play, it will be during the first game.

    This makes the Saints beatable, and if Robert Griffin III can exploit a team still smarting from a disgraceful offseason, the number of voices shouting playoff predictions will start to increase.

Week 2: at St. Louis Rams

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    In recent years, the Redskins have had a tendency to under-perform when faced with opponents they should beat.

    If they defeat the Saints and then lose to the Rams in the very next game, old doubts will begin to resurface about consistency and concentration.

    In addition to this, the team needs to show that the draft picks traded to the Rams are inconsequential now that they have their franchise quarterback.

    Similarly, the Rams need the Redskins to have a losing season in order to get the most out of the trade. Both teams will have no trouble getting pumped up for this game, and I expect it to be much closer than it would initially seem.

    The Rams have made the right decision in granting a four-year contract extension to defensive end Chris Long, but the Redskins pass rush should be too much for the St. Louis offensive line, leaving Sam Bradford vulnerable.

Week 3: Cincinnati Bengals

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    It may seem like I’ve just chosen the first three games out of sheer laziness, but a fast start is absolutely essential for 2012.

    The back end of the Redskins’ schedule is going to be punishing, so in order to make the playoffs, the first three games need to be won.

    They are also all imminently winnable, but the Bengals will push the Redskins all the way. In a similar manner to what Mike Shanahan is doing in Washington, the Bengals’ front office is developing a young team that is full of promise— as evidenced by last season’s trip to the playoffs.

    FedEx Field needs to be the difference-maker in this game.

    This will be the first home game of the season, and the place has to be as intense as humanly possible. Given the hysterical reaction to Robert Griffin III so far, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Week 9: Carolina Panthers

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    This one is going to be built up a lot. Following Cam Newton’s stellar 2011, there were a lot of people looking to compare Griffin to Newton as the draft approached. This game is the perfect opportunity for those people to do just that.

    Sandwiched between games against the Steelers and Eagles, it’s vital that the Redskins get something out of what has the potential to be a three-game losing streak.

    This is a rematch of a 2011 game where the Redskins defense was made to look ordinary, and Newton torched them both on the ground and through the air.

    Even though Newton should theoretically improve with the luxury of a full offseason, the Redskins should be out for revenge.

    The secondary could be a weak point for the Redskins in this game, but if Griffin and the running game can keep the scoreline close, they should manage to come away with the win and keep morale high going into the bye week.

    This would also give them a boost in advance of the home game against the Eagles, and a win there would further improve their playoff hopes.

Week 14: at Cleveland Browns

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    A combination of factors influenced my choice here. First, the Browns should be a team that the Redskins beat in 2012, even with their recent additions of Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden.

    Griffin in particular should be motivated for this game, having lost to Weeden and Oklahoma State while at Baylor.

    The second reason for highlighting this game is it comes at a crucial time for the Redskins. The NFC East should be closer than ever this year, so there should still be several teams in the hunt for a playoff berth.

    Going into the Browns game, the Redskins will have endured a tough 3-game stretch within their division—followed by a home game against the Ravens.

    Even with optimism high within the fans and team, it's unlikely that they come away with a win against Baltimore, so the following week is crucial. There will be a lot of bruised bodies by this point in the season, but the Redskins have to ignore the pain and play as hard as ever.

    Since the final two games of the season are also against division rivals—the Eagles and Cowboys— the Redskins need to come away with a win here to go into those matchups with some momentum.

    Losing here could kill the season, as well as reinforcing the opinion that the Redskins can’t perform when it really counts.