The ingredients are there and the circumstances are ideal. The Washington Redskins have a very real chance to become the first team this century to make the NFL playoffs despite starting the regular season 0-3.
The 'Skins finally broke through with a victory Sunday over the Oakland Raiders, winning three time zones over despite the fact head coach Mike Shanahan declared at a press conference (h/t csnwashington.com) that they "didn't play one of [their] better games."
Indeed, it was not pretty, but that's the NFC East this season. Four weeks in, the league's worst division has produced a total of two wins in 12 games against non-NFC East foes. One of those two came Sunday in Oakland, with the Redskins coming away victorious despite another so-so performance from the clearly-less-than-100 percent Robert Griffin III and his offensive cohorts.
It didn't matter, because the defense was heroic, registering as many sacks (seven) as points allowed.
All three layers of the D stepped it up. Nose tackle Barry Cofield continues to have a dominant season up front. Pass-rushing stud Brian Orakpo had his best game since 2011.
Starting corners Josh Wilson and DeAngelo Hall gave up a total of four catches for just 32 yards, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and they were supported well by rookie David Amerson, who had a game-changing pick-six as part of a second consecutive solid outing.
As a result, a team that made its money by posting the league's third-best turnover ratio in 2012 won the turnover battle for the first time this season. And when that D turns it over, it makes things happen. They've now scored three times on defense this season, which is tied for tops in the NFL.
Yes, Sunday's victory came against a bad team—one that was missing its starting quarterback, running back and left tackle—but progress is progress and a win is a win.
That is the key right now, in addition to the fact that everybody else around them keeps losing.
The transitioning Philadelphia Eagles have been locked in a free-fall ever since beating a deer-in-headlights Redskins team in Week 1. They've lost three straight, as have the 0-4 New York Giants. The Dallas Cowboys still lead the division, but Dallas blew a huge opportunity to grab the divisional reins Sunday in San Diego. Now 2-2, the 'Boys are left wondering why they can't establish any sort of consistency.
This is a Redskins team that even with that three-game losing streak to start the year has gone 8-3 in its last 11 games, dating back to last season. They're the defending division champs, and everyone else is a bit of a mess. The Eagles have won just twice in their last 16 games, the Giants have gone 3-9 in their last 12 and Dallas has now dropped four of six.
The 'Skins now have an ideally timed bye week, giving Griffin extra time to work his way back to normal without having it count in the standings. While they're off getting rested, the division-leading Cowboys will have their hands as full as possible with the league's hottest team, the Denver Broncos.
Washington will get to watch that potential massacre while the Eagles and Giants also beat up on one another next Sunday. Key defensive contributors Rob Jackson and Jarvis Jenkins will return from suspension, and injury-stricken starters Griffin, Alfred Morris and Brandon Meriweather will rest up. And in two weeks' time the 'Skins will very likely be playing the Cowboys for first place in the NFC East.
And remember, this is a team that outplayed Dallas in a road victory last season.
Shanahan was right, though. There's plenty of work to be done. The offense still isn't right, but the medical reality is that RGIII should continue to get better with time. The Redskins won in Week 4 despite the fact Griffin was merely a one-dimensional weapon, and not an overly efficient one at that.
They relied on their franchise quarterback a lot less than usual—after averaging 46 pass attempts in the first three games, he threw only 31 times in Oakland—and got back to the run, controlling the pace while keeping things interesting with some hurry-up.
There was, however, one fourth-quarter moment—the one that arguably clinched that game—in which we got a taste of what Griffin and the 'Skins were up to during that unbelievable playoff run last season. That came when Griffin somehow spun away from pressure to hit Roy Helu for a 28-yard gain that defined swagger.
Moments later, the Redskins were in the end zone and had insurance points.
With plays like that, you can see it beginning to come together. Maybe, considering all that we've seen and all that could lie ahead, the Redskins merely slumped early this year. Maybe they got their rough patch out of the way.
Better in September than December.
This is a team that peaked late last year, too. They were 3-6 and in a much more severe rut entering their bye week in 2012, and that was with the clock approaching midnight. This time, there's less reason to panic, especially since they've already proven to themselves and the football world that they have it in them.
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