Reporting David Elfin
This is getting a little eerie, or should I say, Erie, as in the lake by whose shores the Redskins continued their remarkable surge towards the playoffs yesterday with a 38-21 dismissal of the Browns.
It’s so eerie that I can’t believe what I’m typing. Six weeks after coach Mike Shanahan was talking about evaluating his players to see who was worth bringing back in 2013, Washington has won five in a row and is sitting atop the NFC East.
“Any time you can control your destiny with two weeks left, that’s all you can ask,” Shanahan said after beating the Browns behind quarterback Kirk Cousins, who was brilliant filling in for injured fellow rookie standout Robert Griffin III.
Thanks to their longest winning streak since 2005, the last season they won a playoff game, the Redskins are now large and in charge. If they repeat their November victories over Philadelphia and Dallas the next two Sundays, they win the NFC East and host just the second playoff game in their stadium’s 14 seasons the first weekend of January.
If the NFC standings finish as they are now, Seattle would be Washington’s opponent in that contest for the third time in its four playoff games during the last 13 seasons. Eerie.
“It’s been a long time and it’s great to be back,” said receiver Santana Moss, along with tight end Chris Cooley and special teams coach Danny Smith, the only Washington players and coaches remaining from that 2005 playoff defeat at Seattle. “It’s great … to have that chance to say ‘OK, we’re playing for something more than just the last two games.’ [But] we’re not trying to focus on nothing but what we’ve been focusing on for the last few weeks. That is, keep maintaining our poise and go out there and play every game like it’s our last.”
Speaking of last events, Washington has scored 30 points in seven games this season, its most since 1991, the last year it won in Cleveland. That was also the Redskins’ last Super Bowl season and the second-to-last campaign during which they won the NFC East.
The only more recent division title came in 1999, which is also the last season that Washington had a share of first place this late in the season. The Redskins’ 96 points off turnovers, 16 rushing touchdowns and six games with at least 400 yards are their most since, eerily, 1999. Rookie Alfred Morris has run for 1,315 yards, the most by a neophyte starting running back since Stephen Davis gained 1,405 in, yes, 1999.
So while, as Moss said, it’s not quite time to party like it’s 1999, the Redskins are riding high. If they dispatch the Eagles – who have lost nine of 10 including a 31-6 rout in Landover that started Washington’s turnaround – on Sunday, they’ll play host to the archrival Cowboys on Dec. 30 with the NFC East title on the line. The defending division and Super Bowl champion New York Giants, who had been in first place most of the season, will be eliminated from the current three-way battle if they lose Sunday at Baltimore and the Redskins win in Philly.
For all of their struggles within the division and at home during recent years, the Redskins have won four of their past seven games with the Cowboys at FedEx. Washington has left Philadelphia happy after three of its past five visits.
And those teams didn’t have quarterbacks playing as well as Griffin, who’s second in the NFL with a 104.2 passer rating and could return this week from the mild sprained right knee he suffered eight days ago against the Ravens, and Cousins, who posted a 104.4 rating yesterday.
After a slow start against the Browns, who came in ninth in scoring defense, Cousins completed 25 of his last 31 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns. Trailing 14-10 at halftime in part because a return of Cousins’ early interception had set up an easy Cleveland score, Washington dominated 28-7 after halftime.
“It shows you what the guy’s about,” Shanahan said. “[Interceptions] are going to happen, but you keep your composure and fight through. He stepped up and got more comfortable as the game went on.”
So a week after there was fiscal cliff-like panic in the nation’s capital about RGIII’s right knee, Cousins has calmed the waters with his sterling performance in his first NFL start.
“This wasn’t my first rodeo,” said Cousins, who had played well in relief of Griffin against Atlanta and Baltimore. “I played a lot of football in the Big 10.”
Washington is the first team since Denver in 1983 to have two rookie passers win their starting debuts. John Elway went on to quarterback the Broncos to five Super Bowls and two championships, the latter two for Shanahan. Backup Gary Kubiak became Shanahan’s offensive coordinator for 11 years before moving on to coach Houston, where his coordinator in 2008-09 was Shanahan’s son, Kyle, who now fills that role in Washington and so deftly reworked the Griffin-centered offense last week to fit Cousins so well. Like I said, eerie.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin