As even the most casual observer of the NFL knows, Sunday night's confrontation between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys—with the NFC East championship going to the victor—is about as big of a regular season game as you can get.
The Redskins, led by their spectacular rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III, have exceeded even their most die-hard fans' expectations by being in a position to capture the NFC East crown and host a playoff game for the first time since January 8, 2000, when the Skins beat the Lions at FedEx Field, 27-13.
The Cowboys, who looked to be on the brink of vastly underachieving, yet again, got hot at the right time, led by the solid play of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. They are also now sitting on the brink of an NFC East championship and a return trip to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
For the long-time and bitter rivals, this is actually not the first time that they have met in the season's final game with the NFC East championship on the line. It was 33 years ago, on December 16, 1979, when the Cowboys rallied from a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the Redskins 35-34, ending the 'Skins season in the process.
That game took place on my 11th birthday, and it was the first time that a sporting event actually broke my heart. As a die-hard Redskins fan, it is a moment that I have never forgotten.
Aside from the bitter disappointment, though, that game was a franchise defining moment for the Redskins. That was because a little over three years after one of the most crushing moments in franchise history, the Redskins were on top of the football world and captured their first Super Bowl title against the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII.
I was at that Super Bowl in 1983. Suddenly, December 16, 1979 did not hurt quite so much.
Sunday night's battle feels a lot like 1979 did. Granted, I was just a kid back then and my perspective and understanding of things has changed greatly within the past 33 years. But what I mean is that this game on Sunday night, before a national primetime audience, with all the marbles on the line, feels like another franchise defining moment for the Redskins.
Here are a few reasons why.
Quicker Than Expected
Regardless of what happens Sunday night, the 2012 season has been a great success for the Washington Redskins. While some 'Skins fans will say that they expected this all along, the vast majority of us would have felt that an 8-8 season was a huge step in the right direction.
But if the Redskins win Sunday and capture the NFC East championship in RG3's first season, it changes the dynamics of the franchise considerably. As good as the Redskins have been this year, they are only going to get better—a very scary proposition for the rest of the NFC East as well as for the rest of the NFL.
As great as he has been, RG3 is still just a rookie. He is only going to get better and better. He has made very few poor decisions so far this season and he will make even fewer as time goes on. He will become an even more complete quarterback, and his Pro Bowl nod this season will almost certainly not be his last.
Running back Alfred Morris is only a rookie, too. Yet the unheralded sixth round draft choice from Florida Atlantic has been a beast this season for Washington and is currently ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing with 1,413 yards. There is a very real chance that Morris will break the franchise rushing record of 1,516 yards set by Clinton Portis in 2005. That's not too bad for a rookie.
Trent Williams has also emerged as a star on the offensive line and was selected to the Pro Bowl in just his third year .
Plus, the 'Skins have good, young, speedy wide receivers in Leonard Hankerson and Aldrick Robinson, and they also have Pierre Garcon, who has been slowed by injuries this year and is nevertheless the biggest threat to take it to the house for the 'Skins.
Defensively, it has been a challenging year for the Skins. They lost two starters by the third week of the season in All-Pro linebacker Brian Orakpo and starting defensive end Adam Carriker.
The secondary has been a mess. Brandon Meriweather played in all of one half this season before tearing his right ACL and being lost for the season.
Tanard Jackson was suspended before the regular season even began for violating the NFL's substance policy.
And yet, despite all of this, the Redskins defense has actually been getting better as the season has gone on, especially during the six-game win streak that has delivered the 'Skins to the doorstep of the playoffs quite a bit quicker than most people likely expected.
There is every reason to expect that the Skins will try and strengthen up the defensive corps during the offseason via free agency.
If the Redskins lose Sunday night and fail to make the playoffs, it will be disappointing, without question. But once one looks at all that they have accomplished this year and all the adversity they have faced, a 9-7 record would have to bring a smile to the face of almost any Redskins fan.
But if they win, despite everything, they will be NFC East champions for the first time since 1999. With the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, the always dangerous Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles all in this division, what a huge accomplishment it would be for Washington to take the title already.
And if that happens, who knows how far the team can go? One thing will be for certain though. Next season, the talk won't be about getting back to the playoffs—it will be about finally getting back to the Super Bowl.
Returning The Franchise To Relevance
Since the Redskins last won a Super Bowl, way back in 1992, the years have not been kind to the franchise.
Since the win over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI, the Skins have been to the playoffs only four times, and they have tasted playoff victory only three times in those four appearances. They have not been to the NFC Championship game in 20 years—and those have been the high-water marks.
During those same 20 years, the Redskins have had a winning record just seven times (including this season). They have lost at least 10 games in 10 of those 20 seasons. They have been the doormats of the NFC East for many years now, having finished dead last in the division in five of the past six seasons, including the previous four seasons in a row.
There has been a steady stream of coaches who have come to D.C. only to fail—except for Joe Gibbs, who did get the team to the playoffs in two of the three seasons he was there in his return to the NFL.
There have been an embarrassing number of horrible free agency signings as well, including players who were well past their prime (Deion Sanders) or pretty much at the end of their careers (Bruce Smith). Furthermore, the Albert Haynesworth debacle has to be considered one of the worst free agent signings of all time.
There have been terrible draft picks that just defied logic, such as Heath Shuler, and other decent draft picks, such as Carlos Rogers, turned into All-Pro caliber players only after they left D.C.
And then, of course, there was the tragedy involving the death of Sean Taylor, an event that united the Redskins team and nation for an unexpected playoff run. It was probably the last franchise defining moment for the Redskins and the team has not fully recovered from that tragedy since then.
That could all change on Sunday night, though, and the Redskins franchise can return to its rightful place of being considered one of the elite franchises in the NFL. If the Redskins win on Sunday night, people won't roll their eyes any longer when you say you are a Redskins fan, or laugh uncontrollably and openly question your sanity.
You see, this is bigger than RG3 jersey sales numbers. Yes, it is great that RG3's jersey has sold more than any other player's jersey ever has in a single season before . But we are talking about a proud franchise, as a whole, returning to prominence after being the laughingstock of the NFC East for pretty much two decades now.
If the 'Skins prevail on Sunday night, an entire culture of losing can almost immediately be erased and so many terrible decisions over the years can, at long last, begin to be forgotten. Just from a future free agency perspective, marquee players will be more likely to choose the Redskins over another team for reasons other than how much Dan Snyder is willing to pay them.
Indeed, with a victory Sunday night, the Washington Redskins will be back—and they will be back in a big way.
Because It's The Cowboys
If you really want proof that the game against the Cowboys on Sunday night is a franchise defining moment, then all you really have to do is consult the history books. What you will find is that since the Super Bowl era began, pretty much every time the Redskins franchise has faced a critical juncture, their arch rival has been standing in their way.
On December 31, 1972, the Redskins had to go through the Cowboys to get to their first Super Bowl. The Skins rose to the challenge and thumped Dallas 26-3 at RFK Stadium to advance to Super Bowl VII.
We already talked about December 16, 1979 earlier, but what must be noted is that, after that game, the Redskins lost the next five meetings between the two teams. That set the stage for the 1982 NFC Championship game (played on January 22, 1983) where the Redskins would have to figure out a way to beat the Cowboys if they wanted to return to the Super Bowl.
The 'Skins prevailed that day 31-17 in one of the most memorable moments in franchise history. That win set off the most successful decade in team history, as the 'Skins would advance to the Super Bowl four times over the next 10 years, winning the Lombardi Trophy three times.
On December 22, 1996, in the final game at RFK Stadium, what team was standing there trying to ruin the party? The Dallas Cowboys, of course. The Redskins would not allow the Cowboys to be party crashers, though, as Washington closed down RFK properly with a 37-10 drubbing of the 'Boys.
In 2007, following the death of Sean Taylor, the Redskins had rebounded from a 5-7 record and had to beat, guess who, the Cowboys in the final game of the season at FedEx Field to amazingly reach the playoffs. The 'Skins responded with a 27-6 win over Dallas.
Last season, the Skins got off to a surprising 2-0 start and traveled to Cowboys Stadium to try and get to 3-0. Unable to take advantage of a battered Tony Romo, multiple snapping miscues as well as being unable to prevent Romo from converting on a 3rd-and-21 in the closing moments of the game, the Cowboys won 18-16 and exposed the Redskins as the pretenders they were.
Throughout their history, the Dallas Cowboys have been the litmus test for the Washington Redskins. Time and time again, at critical and franchise defining moments, the Dallas Cowboys have always been ready to show the Redskins whether they had arrived—or whether they still had a ways to go.
Is it any surprise then that in the most important game for the 'Skins in over a decade, their old foe is, once again, standing there at the cross-roads, smiling impishly, knowing that the the road to the next level passes through that old familiar blue star yet again?
Of course not.
There really could not be any other way to know for sure that this will be yet another franchise defining moment.
And for the Washington Redskins and their loyal fans, they really would not want it any other way.