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NFL Schedule Sets Up Bitter Battle for NFC East Title

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Lawrence Vickers of the Dallas Cowboys carries the ball against the defense of Ryan Kerrigan of the Washington Redskins at FedExField on December 30, 2012 in Landover, Maryland. (Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Lawrence Vickers of the Dallas Cowboys carries the ball against the defense of Ryan Kerrigan of the Washington Redskins at FedExField on December 30, 2012 in Landover, Maryland. (Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBSDC) - Back before the NFL established a scheduling formula as part of the divisional realignment of 2002, there were always plenty of nerves for the Redskins before they learned the identity of each season’s opponents.

These days, the excitement about the schedule’s release is all about the order of the games, how many will be in prime-time and when the bye week will be.

Coach Mike Shanahan, his staff and players will be exhausted by having a franchise-record five prime-time games, but that’s one of the negatives about being a defending division champion with the player whose performance last season prompted the most jersey sales in the league. The good news for Washington is that three of those five games are home, including both Monday night contests meaning they won’t require landing at Dulles in the wee hours of the morning. And one of the two road prime-time games is on a Thursday which guarantees plenty of rest afterwards.

On the other hand, dynamic quarterback Robert Griffin III et al can’t be happy to have a Week 5 bye because that means that the Redskins will play their final 12 games without a break. A seven-game stretch drive to the playoffs in 2012 was tough enough, but a 12-game run?

Related: Redskins Set for Primetime Next Season

More important is that the Redskins’ first month should be their easiest, a welcome relief with Griffin still uncertain to be ready for the start of the season as he continues to recover from surgery on the LCL and ACL in his right knee on Jan. 9. Washington plays just four games before Oct. 13 and three of them are against teams that went 4-12 last season: Philadelphia, Detroit and Oakland. The other is a tough assignment against defending NFC North Champion Green Bay at Lambeau Field in Week 2. Who knows how the Eagles will respond to rookie coach Chip Kelly after 15 seasons under Andy Reid especially with the entire nation watching in the Monday night opener? Lions’ receiver Calvin Johnson could eat up Washington’s secondary. And playing in the Black Hole is never fun. But on paper, that’s a 3-1 first quarter for the Redskins.

The next four games should be more challenging, especially the visits to Dallas – where Griffin threw four touchdown passes in his return home to Texas last Thanksgiving but now faces a defense run by famed coordinator Monte Kiffin – and Denver, where Shanahan coached for 14 years and still owns a mansion. Shanahan might wish he was already retired there after the Redskins try to slow the Broncos and ageless quarterback Peyton Manning, who are favored to win the Super Bowl.

Chicago, under rookie coach Marc Trestman, is more of an unknown quantity other than Shanahan’s former Broncos aerial tandem of Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall. The other home game, against San Diego and its new coach, Mike McCoy, is the most winnable. Let’s call this a 2-2 quarter with both losses coming on the road.

Just four days after facing the Chargers, the Redskins will play on Thursday night at Minnesota, a team that has the NFL’s best running back, Adrian Peterson but one they beat last year at home. Next comes the rematch with the Eagles in Philadelphia. Washington then gets an extra day to prepare for the Monday night matchup with defending NFC champion San Francisco. The Redskins’ defense will get to show if their daily dose of RGIII has prepared them for 49ers dual threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The third quarter of the season ends with a Sunday night visit from the New York Giants, whom Griffin came oh so close to beating twice last year. Figure the Redskins beat the Eagles and Giants but fall to the Vikings and 49ers for another 2-2 quarter and a 7-5 record so far.

Reid is now trying to rebuild Kansas City, which Washington should defeat in Week 14 at home. Week 15’s task at Atlanta will be much tougher. The Falcons, who had the NFC’s best regular season record in 2012, not only beat the Redskins in Landover last October, they sidelined Griffin with a concussion. As was the case last year, the Cowboys come calling in late December. Shanahan and Co. should prevail again, especially with an emotional boost from what figures to be captain London Fletcher’s final home game at age 38.

A triumph over Dallas would make the Redskins 9-6 heading into the finale at the Giants with the NFC East title quite possibly at stake. If not for a breakdown in the secondary, Washington would have won at New York last October. What will happen this Dec. 29? The nation will be watching the duel between RGIII and Eli, and Shanahan and Tom Coughlin, two of the three active coaches with multiple Super Bowl victories as the Redskins play their finale within the division yet again, a smart scheduling change that the NFL made in 2010.

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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin

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