By Brian McNally

ASHBURN — The change was evident even last week, a rising intensity level that led to a blowout win over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

Redskins coach Jay Gruden spent the beginning of one practice having his cornerbacks and wide receivers go one-on-one inside the red zone. It was a battle. Either you won or you lost. This Wednesday, an unnamed offensive practice squad player got into a scuffle with a frustrated defensive player. It wasn’t the only one that day, either.

Maybe there’s no direct correlation between such physical confrontations and better play on Sundays. But don’t tell Redskins players that. They remember last year when frustrations boiled over at practice because of bad play late in the season. This time it means something else entirely: They’re still playing for something.

“It’s competing. From time to time you’re going to kind of get into it with your brother or your sister,” cornerback DeAngeo Hall said. “It’s kind of life. So the skirmishes we’ve had out there have been good for us. It’s been good to watch us compete against each other and try to dominate [the offense] and they’re trying to dominate us. I think it translates to the field, to games. You can just see the fight in all of us.”

A 47-14 blowout of New Orleans helps prove the point. Gruden said repeatedly after that game that his team had its best week of practice, an intense, focused group that knew if it lost the season was all but over. Instead, Washington (4-5) has a chance to pull into a tie for first place in the NFC East if it can upset the undefeated Carolina Panthers (9-0) on the road this Sunday.

“It’s starting to grow. The effort was great today with even a couple little skirmishes out there, which is good to see every now and then,” Gruden said. “But the intensity level is rising. You can see it — the confidence, the intensity, all that — which is good. We’ve got to keep that up. There is no room, there is no time, for us to become stagnant in our approach.”

Asked which players were involved in the “multiple” skirmishes at Wednesday’s practice, several Redskins players just smirked. They weren’t about to divulge that information and reporters had long since been escorted off the practice field. But veterans, who have been through two hellish seasons with seven wins combined, saw it as a positive sign.

“It just says that we’re trying to improve as a team,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “It just says that we understand that we have to pick our tempo up if we want to go out and play well on Sundays. It has to be done during the week. I think that’s all that says. Guys know that we need the full speed looks during the week to even be able to get close to doing it the way we’re supposed to do in the game.”

Washington has already matched last year’s win total and is tied for second place in the division with Philadelphia (4-5). The Redskins then host the first place New York Giants on Nov. 29 at FedEx Field. It’s late November and they’re still playing meaningful football. No one can afford to go through the motions, now.

“They getting after each other and they ain’t really just going through the motions, lackadaisical,” defensive end Jason Hatcher said. “They trying to whoop each other’s butt. So you know that when tempers fly that’s what going on.”

He looked around at reporters and added: “It’s nut-cutting time.”

Every year since 2011 Washington had started the season 3-6. In 2012 it rallied to win the NFC East and made the playoffs. The other three years ended poorly. No one wants to go back to that. Losing gets old. The skirmishes are a sign of players desperate for jobs and a team desperate for wins, for relevance. Even if, in this case, the players involved were just blowing off steam.

“I think they were just blowing hot air,” Hatcher joked about the unnamed players who battled. “I told them I’m going to get them some boxing gloves – two pair. The next person that’s ALMOST about to fight we’re going to get in this locker room and we’re going to fight. I’m tired of all the talking.”

Follow Redskins reporter Brian McNally on Twitter.