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Elfin: The Biggest Win was for Shanahan

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(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

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The old guard certainly contributed last night in Landover. London Fletcher had both sacks of Tony Romo while Rob Jackson had the game-sealing interception and DeAngelo Hall and Reed Doughty helped keep Dallas’ passing attack under control. Santana Moss had a pair of 11-yard catches and Kedric Golston was in on a couple of tackles. Trent Williams and Will Montgomery opened huge holes for the running game. Doughty and Lorenzo Alexander led the way on special teams.

However, the Redskins’ 28-18 conquest of the Cowboys in the winner-take-all showdown for the NFC East title was, above all, a triumph for one man. And I don’t mean Alfred Morris, no matter how sensational the rookie running back was with 200 yards and three touchdowns.

No, the key to Washington’s seven straight victories, its first playoff berth in five years and its first division championship in 13 belonged to Mike Shanahan, the architect of a renaissance that no one outside of Redskins Park believed was possible less than two months ago.

Shanahan is one of just six NFL coaches to win back-to-back Super Bowls, but those 1997 and 1998 Broncos were supposed to play for the Lombardi Trophy having been the AFC’s top team in 1996 before being upset in their playoff opener. Only his 2000 wild card qualifier in Denver was an unexpected postseason participant.

However, these Redskins were a consensus pick to finish last in the NFC East and below .500 for a third straight year under Shanahan, who was 11-21 in 2010 and 2011. After an ugly home loss to Carolina on Nov. 4 left them at 3-6, Shanahan sent his players into their bye week with the message that the rest of this season was going to be about determining who was still going to be part of his program come 2013.

While shocking to outsiders and even some in the locker room, Shanahan’s harsh words apparently were just what the reeling Redskins needed to hear because they haven’t lost since.

“What he issued was a personal challenge; just to realize that you can’t have a loss and say, ‘Oh, we’ll get it next time … Every game matters and if you don’t bring that approach, you won’t play,’ “said Robert Griffin III, the rookie quarterback on whom Shanahan bet his reputation by sending three first-round picks and a second-rounder to St. Louis in order to move up four spots and draft second overall. “I think everyone responded extremely well to what coach did. It’s just a testament to him.”

Last night, the 60-year-old Shanahan, a 28-year NFL veteran, said that he doesn’t think long-term during the season, just week-by-week.

“When you think long-term, you can’t accomplish anything,” he said. “We had to focus on the job at hand and have great practices every day. Doing that gave us a chance to be where we are right now.”

Where they are, amazingly, is just three victories against a not as imposing as usual NFC playoff field from reaching the Super Bowl for the first time in 21 years. Of course, winning three straight postseason games will be a tougher task than running off seven In a row during November and December even those triumphs included a pair over the talented Cowboys and one each over AFC North champion Baltimore and the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

Three playoff victories are also more than all but four of Shanahan’s players have won during their careers. Fletcher leads the way with five, but his last was in 2001. Barry Cofield and Chris Chester have four apiece with the former joining Fletcher in earning a Super Bowl ring. Moss has three, the last also Washington’s last back in 2005.

That was also the last year that Shanahan won a playoff game, but his .615 postseason career winning percentage is not only higher than his .572 regular season mark, but it’s better than all but three of the 10 coaches who have more career victories than his 175.

Only Atlanta (13-3), which lost two of its last final four games while on virtual autopilot, finished significantly ahead of 10-6 Washington in the NFC. And the Falcons are 0-3 in postseason under coach Mike Smith.

So, crazy as it seems, why can’t the Redskins, who were about as hopeless on Election Day as Mitt Romney, win the NFC title the day before Barack Obama is inaugurated again?

“Everybody laughed at us when we said we still controlled our destiny [at 3-6],” said Golston, one of seven Redskins who were part of both the 2007 and 2012 playoff teams. “To be here now, it’s a proud feeling. It’s all about perseverance.”

That’s a quality that the grinding Shanahan has in spades. And now, so do his players.

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

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