In 2005 and again in 2007, the Washington Redskins faced strings of must-win games in December. They lost to San Diego in the last game of November of '05 to fall to 5-6. They then reeled off five straight wins to grab a wild card spot. Last year they were 5-7 after a Dec. 2 loss to the Bills and it took four wins in a row to pull out another postseason berth.
This year, the Redskins sit at 7-5 going into the final month of the season. While they are third in their division and fourth among the four teams with realistic wild card aspirations, their situation for making the playoffs is difficult, but not as desperate as it was three years ago or last year.
A repeat of last year's four-game run would almost certainly lead to a trip to the playoffs. Here are the four teams currently in contention plus Tampa Bay, with the same record as Carolina and leading the NFC South on tiebreakers:
TB 9-3: @CAR @ATL SD OAK
CAR 9-3: TB DEN @NYG @NO
ATL 8-4: @NO TB @MIN STL
DAL 8-4: @PIT NYG BAL @PHI
WAS 7-5: @BAL @CIN PHI @SF
At first glance, this looks rather bleak as the Redskins will have to pass two teams in order to make it in. That's difficult, but not as daunting as it may seem.
To set this up, let's say that the Redskins are able to get to 10 wins, with victories over Philly and San Francisco as part of the mix. That would give them a division record of 3-3 and a conference record of 8-4.
Look at Dallas' remaining schedule. It's the hardest of any NFL team. The Cowboys will do well to go 2-2 against that gauntlet. Should one of those losses come against the Eagles or Giants, they would be at 10-6 but with five conference losses. The Redskins would win the tiebreaker based on conference record.
The Bucs, Panthers, and Falcons have something of a round robin going on in the next couple of weeks, as Tampa Bay plays at Carolina this Sunday and Atlanta hosts the Bucs the following week.
There are way too many possible outcomes of those three games to go into all of them, but the best thing for the Skins is for the Bucs to sweep the two games and take command of the NFC South. Then Carolina would have four conference losses and would have to win two of their last three to get to 11 wins and stay out of a tiebreaker with a 10-win Redskins team. The Redskins would win that tiebreaker since Carolina would have five NFC losses if it finished 1-2 at that point.
The Falcons are 5-3 and all of their remaining games are against NFC teams. That means that if they finish 10-6 they will automatically have five conference losses and would finish behind the Skins in a tiebreaker.
The Redskins want to stay out of a tiebreaker with the Bucs, who have only two conference losses with two NFC games left.
But all the Redskins need to have a good shot at making it a 10-6 is to have no more than one non-division winner to finish at 11-5.
What it boils down to here is that while this Sunday night's game against the Ravens is important in a lot of ways, it's not vital to the team's playoff chances. If they lose, it's a non-conference game and they would be facing three games (I hate to label those last three as "very winnable" as everything has been a struggle lately but they are games the Skins should be able to win without playing at their absolute peak) that they would have to sweep to get to 10.
The picture will become clearer after this week's games and we'll have solid must-win and must-lose games after Week 15. But for now, 10 seems to be the number that will have the Redskins playing into January.