The Washington Redskins' 3-6 start is a distant memory, and the burgundy and gold are now in first place in the NFC East. The goal is simple—win the next two games, and the playoffs are a certainty. It won't be easy. A trip to Philadelphia looms, as does a potential winner-take-all clash against Dallas at FedEx Field to end the year.
The Redskins have won five in a row sticking to a run-first approach, mixed in with timely defense and solid special teams. If that continues, and the Redskins win the division, playoff football will be coming to Washington for the first time since 1999. There are hundreds of factors that go into winning a football game, but there are three things the Redskins must do more than anything to ensure that elusive playoff berth.
Take It One Game at a Time
"Take it one game at a time" may be one of the most overused cliches in sports, but it is very relevant to the run the Redskins are on. Sitting at 3-6, it would have been foolish to think that players were sitting in that locker room and talking about winning seven straight games. Instead, Washington entered each game with a playoff-type mentality and focused only on the opponent at hand.
It would be a disaster if the Redskins overlook the Eagles. In the NFL, nothing is a given, not even if your team is the 1985 Bears and the next game is against the 2008 Lions. Remember, the Redskins will be on the road, and winning on the road is never easy.
Think of it this way: if the Redskins are going to win the Super Bowl, they'll have to enter the big game on a 10-game winning streak. Looking at it from that angle makes the task seem daunting. Viewing it from the perspective of "one game at a time" makes it seem slightly more doable. The Redskins must stay disciplined and play each game like it's their last. They must forget about what's to come and focus on what's important in the moment.
Keep to the ShanaPlan
Mike Shanahan isn't getting any love from the media in the Coach of the Year discussion, but he and his son Kyle Shanahan have been instrumental in the success of Washington's offense. This week's game against the Browns showed the full scope of what these two men have been able to accomplish in 2012. After a week rife with debate over how the Redskins would adjust their offensive game plan with Kirk Cousins under center, the coaches essentially went with the exact same scheme, minus the option plays.
If the Redskins can continue to execute the play calls, they'll be very tough to beat. Washington not only has the top running game in the league, they also lead the league in yards gained on play-action passes, which indicates that the only way to slow down the offense is to face a defense with impeccable reaction time.
Most of this is possible because of the fact that running the ball is an integral part of the ShanaPlan. Against Cleveland, Alfred Morris was all but bottled up in the first half—yet the Redskins continued to pound the ball despite minimal success. This allowed them to control the ball and run 22 more plays than the Browns did on the afternoon, which is a stunning statistic. The Redskins can move the ball as well as anyone, and they'll make it to the playoffs if they can keep their balance intact and keep the opposition on its toes.
Play 60 Minutes on Defense
The Redskins defense has been maligned this year, but the unit has played surprisingly well during the win streak. This is particularly true in the second half of games, where Jim Haslett has made adjustments to make the defense nearly impenetrable. In four of the last five games (the Dallas game is the lone outlier), the Redskins have only allowed a total of 20 points in the second half. That's simply incredible for a defense that was so bad at the beginning of the year.
The effort against Cleveland was perhaps the best of the year, but the Redskins still have yet to put together a truly dominant defensive performance, one where the outcome of the game isn't put in doubt at the end.
The improvements have been impressive, but the defense can't just play well for a half. It has to be a full, 60-minute game where the Redskins punch the opposition in the mouth and make everything difficult. They've proven they have the ability to do it from time to time, but they must do it on a more consistent basis. If that happens, a Redskins team that averages 27 points per game will be nearly impossible to beat.