Imagine if Washington’s defense had been able to hold on for just 73 more seconds in Week 7 at the Meadowlands. At 10-5, the Redskins would be the NFC East champions and aiming for a first-round bye.
Instead, it’s going to take beating archrival Dallas on Sunday for a seventh straight victory overall – a first since 1996 — and fifth in a row in the division – the latter of which hasn’t been achieved since 1983 – for Washington to rule the NFC East for the first time since 1999.
Coincidentally, 1983 is also the last season that the Redskins and Cowboys met in December with the division title at stake. That’s so long ago that 40 of Washington’s 53 players had yet to be born. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was about to turn four and his dad, coach Mike Shanahan, had yet to work a day in the NFL.
Chris Cooley was a toddler back then, but after nine seasons in Washington, the backup tight end knows that it’s fitting that he’ll have to beat Dallas to finally call himself a champion.
“The game … is great for the NFL as well as the rivalry because of the history between … the teams,” Cooley said after the Redskins held off the Eagles 27-20 yesterday to improve to 9-6, a game ahead of the Cowboys and the New York Giants, both of whom lost. “It‘s two great franchises playing hard to beat one another and that’s good stuff.”
Not to mention the biggest Redskins-Cowboys regular season game ever played in Washington. The winner captures the NFC East title and a home playoff game next weekend. The Redskins will need help to reach postseason as a wild card. The Cowboys are done with a defeat.
Washington and Dallas met in the 1972 and 1982 NFC Championship Games at RFK Stadium, but their most critical regular season meetings came at Texas Stadium in 1979 and 1983. For the record, the Redskins won all of those games easily except for the 1979 matchup in which they blew a 34-21 lead with less than 3:00 left and lost 35-34.
In any event, this is the most unlikely showdown ever for the division crown between the longtime archrivals considering that six weeks ago the Redskins limped into their bye at 3-6 after an embarrassing home loss to Carolina while the Cowboys had fallen to 3-5 (tied with Philadelphia) after a defeat in Atlanta. The defending Super Bowl champion Giants were 6-3 and in command of the NFC East.
The records since: Redskins 6-0, Cowboys 5-2, Giants 2-4, Eagles 1-6, leaving Washington alone atop the NFC East this late for the first time since it clinched the division in Week 16 of 1999.
“Everything we’ve been working for comes down to Sunday,” said Shanahan, who was 14-27 in Washington before the current six-game tear. “It takes a lot of character to fight through what we’ve done. It feels good to be where we’re at because our backs were against the wall. I [have been] really pleased with how the guys [have] stepped up. [But] we haven’t accomplished anything yet.”
Indeed, if the Redskins don’t repeat their Week 12 victory over the Cowboys they’ll need help to grab the NFC’s last wild card spot.
While Cooley is still waiting to win his first division title, captain London Fletcher is looking to finish in first place for the first time in 11 years (since he was with St. Louis) and receiver Santana Moss to do the same for the first time in a decade (since he was with the New York Jets), nose tackle Barry Cofield is dreaming bigger.
“We’re not playing to make the playoffs,” said Cofield, who arrived in Washington in 2011. “We’re playing to win the Super Bowl.”
Spoken like a man who started on the 2007 Giants, who soared from wild card to Super Bowl champion after getting beaten at home in Week 15 by the Redskins and backup quarterback Todd Collins.
Cofield’s confidence isn’t misplaced. No NFC team is hotter than Washington, which led Dallas 28-3 at halftime when they met in Week 12 before holding on to win 38-31.
That was the franchise’s first triumph in seven Thanksgiving trips to Texas. Washington also smacked a surging Cleveland team on the road without sensational rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, got a trio of late, clutch plays from little-used rookies Kirk Cousins and Richard Crawford to beat Baltimore, and held off the Giants in the space of four weeks. So who says the Redskins can’t complete this incredible renaissance by topping the Cowboys at home?
Not Griffin or fellow first-year record-breakers Alfred Morris and Kai Forbath. They’re all too inexperienced to know that this isn’t how things have been done in Washington for the past two decades. Maybe, just maybe, as Cofield believes, this run is the start of something bigger. And I don’t mean this year’s Super Bowl. I’m thinking bigger picture: the Redskins finally becoming a consistent contender for the first time since they last hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in January 1992.
Who would have thought that was possible just six weeks ago?
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