The Washington Redskins aren't just along for the ride in the race to win this season's NFC East. Instead, these Redskins actually have the edge over their rivals.
Schedules, misfiring quarterbacks and inner turmoil can all help the Burgundy and Gold snatch a first playoff berth since 2012.
So can another key quality. It's one that showed up early in the second quarter of Washington's blowout, 47-14 demolition of the New Orleans Saints in Week 10.
Running back Alfred Morris had gained three tough yards off a first-down carry before heading to the sidelines. No. 46 seemed hampered by some ailment or other.
The Redskins' first method to replace their primary ball-carrier was to insert third-round rookie Matt Jones into the lineup. He ripped off a 24-yard run as New Orleans continued its commitment to undermining the art of defense. Then Jones trudged off the field to make way for pint-sized pace merchant Chris Thompson. The 5'8", 193-pound Thompson bounced off left tackle for 38 yards.
Two plays run by their backup runners gained 62 yards. The implication of these plays is clear: Washington's offensive line is developing into a real force.
Head coach Jay Gruden saved special praise for his front five in the wake of this emphatic win, per Anthony Gulizia of the Washington Times:
Offensive line, I thought, was outstanding. They really played well. They played exceptional getting out on screen passes down the field and flying around. There’s some clips in that game that are highlight film reels for offensive linemen and they all played hard.
The O-line's rapid development under new position coach Bill Callahan bodes extremely well for Washington's hopes of hoisting the division crown. It was Callahan's group that inspired the Dallas Cowboys to the division title last season. The NFC East is still a division won by power in the trenches.
So it's good news that Washington's strength along the front also extends to the defensive line. In another article for the Times, Gulizia detailed the snap count for the Redskins' D-linemen: "The good thing is there’s good depth on the defensive line and the Redskins rotated their four defensive ends heavily to give Hatcher a break. Chris Baker played 31 snaps and had a half-sack, Ricky Jean Francois played 27 and Stephen Paea played 26."
Gulizia added how those figures let Washington defensive coordinator Joe Barry use 33-year-old Jason Hatcher more selectively. Keeping this effective veteran fresh at the business end of the season will prove a massive boost for a defense that still has plenty of room for improvement.
The Redskins have the lines to win this division, something that's a credit to new general manager Scot McCloughan. He's built from the trenches out, the classic formula for establishing success in the NFL. Now the results are starting to show.
But any GM is truly judged on the depth of his roster. This is where McCloughan scores big.
Quality depth is beginning to define these Redskins. It's also setting them apart in the divisional race.
Just look at wide receiver. Against the Saints, Pierre Garcon was quiet, while DeSean Jackson was in and out of the lineup as his journey back to full fitness endured a few bumps in the road. Yet, having two premier pass-catchers below par didn't worry Washington. Why would it when Jamison Crowder is around?
The rookie caught four passes for 60 yards and a score to help down the Saints. Those contributions took his season tally to 42 grabs for 402 yards. As a slot receiver with mismatch skills underneath, Crowder isn't just contributing. He's becoming indispensable.
Crowder's production is just one more endorsement of the strength in depth on this year's roster. Talent and competition are so high, a capable cornerback like DeAngelo Hall is moving to safety just to see the field, according to CSNMid-Atlantic.com's Rich Tandler.
This is a team getting healthy at key positions, a team with multiple options in several areas, a team that finally looks settled. That should worry three divisional opponents who look anything but.
Starting with Washington's hated foe, the Cowboys, you'll see a roster that's still the most talented in the East. But it's also one crippled by injury and inner turmoil. Losing quarterback Tony Romo has destroyed the Cowboys' season. But the negative impact of volatile personalities like Greg Hardy and Dez Bryant has played its part as well.
The Cowboys are still strong, especially with Romo back as he's supposed to be this week, according to ESPN.com News Services. But the Redskins rarely fear their most fierce rival, having won three out of the last six contests between the two. That's good news with two meetings against Dallas still on the schedule.
Those games form half of a quartet of divisional fixtures that afford the Redskins the most ammunition to influence the NFC East race.
Among them is a second meeting with the New York Giants, traditionally Washington's hex team. But in Week 12, the Redskins will get the Giants at FedEx Field where Gruden's men are 4-1 this season.
New York will also be coming off its heartbreaking, one-point loss to the New England Patriots. It was a defeat that seemed to take all of the air out of the G-Men. The challenge is on for Tom Coughlin to use this week's bye to repair some fractured egos.
More good news for Washington comes in the form of New York's 26th-ranked rushing offense. Stopping the run has been a major problem for the Redskins in 2015. But they won't have that worry when they get another crack at a one-dimensional Eli Manning.
Speaking of taking advantage of a team's quarterback situation, that's exactly what Barry's unit must do when it faces the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 16. It's Mark Sanchez or Sam Bradford under center for head coach Chip Kelly's team. Redskins fans should love those odds.
For the next two games at least, it's going to be Sanchez, as detailed by NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport:
The so-called "Sanchise" can still be counted on for a costly late-game turnover or two. It's also not as if he's entering an offense firing on all cylinders without him.
Kelly is paying the price for favoring DeMarco Murray over the more explosive and imaginative Ryan Mathews in the running game. A disappointing cast of receivers led by should-be-better-than-he-is poster boy Jordan Matthews, and also featuring ageing flop Miles Austin, hasn't helped much either.
Certainly, the Redskins boast greater offensive firepower than these Eagles. They also have no reason to fear the trip to Philly, a place where the Burgundy and Gold usually perform well. The Football Database indicates Washington has won 40 road games in the all-time series against the Eagles.
There are genuine problems facing every other team in the East, not the least of which are their schedules.
|Remaining Games Facing the rest of the NFC East|
|at Miami Dolphins||vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers||at Washington|
|vs. Carolina Panthers||at Detroit Lions||vs. New York Jets|
|at Washington||at New England Patriots||at Miami Dolphins|
|at Green Bay Packers||vs. Buffalo Bills||vs. Carolina Panthers|
|vs. New York Jets||vs. Arizona Cardinals||at Minnesota Vikings|
|at Buffalo Bills||vs. Washington||vs. Eagles|
|vs. Washington||at Giants|
The Cowboys shouldn't be relishing a road trip to face a Miami Dolphins team that blew this division race wide open by beating the Eagles in Philadelphia in Week 10.
While the Dolphins remain weighed down by myriad problems, there's still plenty of fight left in interim head coach Dan Campbell. As a former Cowboys player, Campbell has extra motivation to do well this week.
But a tricky reunion aside, it's games on the road against the resurgent Buffalo Bills and a Green Bay Packers squad too talented to remain in its funk for long that should really concern the Cowboys.
So should a visit from the Carolina Panthers.
Those same Panthers loom large on the schedule for the Giants. So do the ultraphysical Minnesota Vikings. They are two of the league's toughest defenses for Manning and his passing game to try to navigate.
Yet, no team in the division is as vulnerable as those temperamental Eagles. A home game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is no gimme. Not when the NFC South club is 4-5 and boasts a plethora of talented skill players, especially in the backfield.
Combine these two games with meetings against the red-hot New England Patriots and Arizona Cardinals, and the Eagles are staring at a perilous finish.
Of course, Washington's own schedule has moments to make you grimace—moments like meeting the Panthers on the road, along with a game in the Windy City against a Chicago Bears franchise pointed in the right direction under the leadership of John Fox.
But the Redskins suddenly appear armed with the right firepower to survive the tough tests. Depth on both sides of the ball is strong, while each unit is being led by steady improvement in the trenches.
The team's own quarterback situation looks solid for a rare time in recent years. Kirk Cousins has just wrapped up the best statistical game of his career, while Gruden has highlighted the host of weapons helping to make No. 8's job easier, as noted by ESPN.com's John Keim.
If you're looking for the most settled roster in this season's NFC East, look no further than Redskins Park. That's not something said too often in the last few years.
But it's a truth that can make this team an unlikely division champion ahead of schedule.
All statistics and player information via NFL.com, unless otherwise stated.