The Washington Times - December 10, 2012, 12:22AM

Here’s what I’m thinking immediately after the Redskins’ 31-28 overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday:

It appears the Redskins avoided a disaster involving QB Robert Griffin III’s health. An MRI Sunday night on his sprained right knee showed no significant ligament damage, according to a team spokesman. However, the Redskins are calling it a “sprained” knee, which by definition means there is some ligament damage. The team is saying it’s not serious. Coach Mike Shanahan is expected to talk about Griffin’s prognosis at his 3 p.m. news conference Monday.

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The injury looked bad because of how Griffin’s leg slightly wrapped around DT Haloti Ngata’s back when Ngata tackled him in the open field. It was a nasty, unnatural bend, and it was the same knee in which Griffin tore the ACL in 2009. Griffin wore a brace on his right knee when he left the locker room, and he was limping significantly.

Even if he plays against Cleveland, it’s unlikely he’ll be fully healthy. The question, then, is how healthy must Griffin be in order to be effective? There are two elements to that answer, obviously – passer and runner.

He completed two passes after hurting his plant leg, and they were strong throws. His core muscles are strong, so he still can generate force on throws. If he’s limited to the pocket and can’t extend plays, though, that’s a problem. Of course, any leg injury hurts the Redskins’ quarterback option game that has been such a big part of their success rushing the ball and throwing the ball. If he isn’t a threat to run, the zone-read play-action won’t be as big of a threat, and opposing linebackers won’t be as affected.

“I think we’ll be all right,” LG Kory Lichtensteiger said of the possibility Griffin can’t play. “We’re not going to be able to run as much of the quarterback option stuff, but I think we’ll be able to keep enough of what we’ve been doing with Robert to keep defenses off balance.

“The way we moved the ball day and the last half of the season, I don’t think we’re ever going to lose faith in ourselves and what this offense can do.”

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Don’t expect the Redskins to sit Griffin against Cleveland next Sunday for any other reason than his knee injury prevents him from helping the team. Yes, the Browns game won’t affect Washington’s NFC record – an important tiebreaker – and, yes, the Browns are only 5-8. But the Redskins need to win the game because almost all of the other NFC contenders won Sunday. And Cleveland, with three straight wins, is no pushover.

Knowing how Shanahan likes to keep opponents guessing about injuries, especially now that they’re in the heart of the playoff race, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Redskins portrayed Griffin’s injury as a day-to-day or week-to-week situation. Again, we’ll hopefully find out more details from Shanahan at 3 p.m. Monday.

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The Redskins improved to 7-6, but they’re still one game out of playoff position because New York and Seattle also won. Washington also kept pace with other NFC wild card contenders who won: Green Bay, Dallas, Minnesota and St. Louis. Tampa Bay and Chicago were the only NFC playoff contenders that lost. I’m not including top-seeded Atlanta in that statement.

ESPN.com has the updated playoff picture here, with some helpful tiebreaker explanations. Bottom line: the Redskins trail New York by one game in the division, and they trail Chicago and Seattle by a game for the two wild card spots.

Washington has the tiebreaker advantage over New York by virtue of a superior record against divisional opponents. The Redskins have the tiebreaker advantage over sixth-seeded Chicago by virtue of their superior record against NFC opponents (6-4 to 5-4). Fifth-seeded Seattle has the tiebreaker advantage over Washington by virtue of its superior record against common opponents. All those tiebreakers could change over the final three weeks.

The Redskins travel to Cleveland next Sunday, to Philadelphia the week after that, and then they host Dallas on the final Sunday of the season. Each game is winnable. Each game is losable. Washington’s margin for error is razor thin, and the last two games are must-win because they’re against divisional opponents.

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You can find QB Kirk Cousins on many weekdays sitting on a couch outside the Redskins locker room. He usually has his nose buried in the playbook, or he’s using a pen to draw plays on a notepad. He stays after practice to review plays and route concepts because he practices the opponent’s plays with the scout team offense instead of the Redskins’ plays with their first-string offense.

It’s not easy for anyone to consistently prepare for a payoff they’re not guaranteed to realize, but all that work served Cousins and the Redskins well Sunday when he completed the game-tying drive at the end of regulation.

“He’ll get less than five reps in practice with the first-team offense,” LG Kory Lichtensteiger said. “I think for him to be ready in a moment like that says a lot about his preparation. Always being ready. You say, ‘The next guy up. You’re just a play away,’ but you go so many games without getting in and you start thinking, ‘I’m just going to ride this out for the rest of the season.’ But you can’t say enough about Kirk and the way he handled himself today.”

The Redskins put Cousins in an unenviable position when they drafted him. Robert Griffin III blocks him on the depth chart as long as Griffin is healthy. Cousins would have a chance to play for such teams as Arizona or Kansas City, but he’s stuck in Washington.

Mike Shanahan, however, wanted to establish some long-term stability at quarterback. His plan to do so is working because of how maturely Cousins has accepted his role and his status. That says a lot about Cousins’ character. He has an up-close vantage point of Griffin’s rising star, and he has no control over when he plays, but still he maintains a professional approach.

“It’s encouraging to watch a quarterback have success in this offense because you feel like you’re in a place that you succeed if you’re number does get called upon,” Cousins said. “Coach Shanahan’s track record with quarterbacks, this is a place where you want to play. Quarterbacks want to play for the Shanahans. In that sense, it’s a good position for me to be in, and I’m just trying to develop myself and have my career last as long as it possibly can.”

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Cousins can’t move like Griffin – no one can – but he is able to make plays with his legs. He extended the game-tying 11-yard touchdown pass to WR Pierre Garcon by rolling to his right and positioning himself to throw over CB Chris Johnson. He also converted the two-point conversion by selling the fake and following quality lead blocks by LG Kory Lichtensteiger, RG Chris Chester and RB Evan Royster.

“The touchdown was an off-schedule play,” Cousins said. “I tried to start my read, and I just didn’t feel comfortable sitting in the pocket and waiting on it. I think in some respects I had learned from the Falcons game (his NFL debut on Oct. 7). When I threw my second interception in that game, I just waited too long on it and tried to do too much. So I thought, ‘I’m going to try to make something happen and try to do my best RG3,’ if you will. Pierre ended up coming off his route and breaking away and breaking open. He was wide open. All I had to do was put it in his arms.”

That Cousins was able to apply a lesson from the Falcons game is a great sign for the Redskins. He plays so rarely that he has to make the most of whatever experience he gets.

He pump-faked on the touchdown, which prompted the cornerback Johnson to come off Garcon toward the inside receiver. That enabled Garcon to separate enough for Cousins to lob a throw on the run over Johnson.

***

What a play call on the two-point conversion. 106.7 The Fan’s Grant Paulsen made a great point in the pressbox after the game: Imagine the heat offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan would have taken if he called a draw for Cousins and it didn’t work?

Don’t forget, though, the play call includes an option to check out of the draw based on the defense. The Ravens initially showed blitz, which would have caused Cousins to throw, but they backed out of it.

Cousins wasn’t surprised by the play call because he knew Rex Grossman scored on a quarterback draw against Dallas last season in Week 11. That’s how well he knows his stuff.

***

Griffin has played tough all season. The sequence after his injury was the latest example. He has absorbed numerous high-impact, dangerous hits, but he continues to get up. Both times he has been knocked out of games this season (his Week 5 concussion against Atlanta being the other), he has insisted on returning to play.

“That’s the mindset you have to have,” Griffin said. “It’s not about me or myself. It’s about the team. I think the guys were proud of me for going back out there and fighting and told me they’d fight with me any day.”

***

CB Richard Crawford had a fine game returning punts. His three returns went for 20, 16 and 64 yards. He was direct in getting upfield after catching punts, which is not something benched return man Brandon Banks consistently does. There was very little wasted movement or time. He’s not afraid of contact, either.

Credit several players for quality blocks on his 64-yard return in overtime: S Reed Doughty, S DeJon Gomes, CB DJ Johnson, CB Jerome Murphy, LB Lorenzo Alexander. I might be missing some. RB Keiland Williams might have gotten away with a block in the back. I’ll have to re-watch it on a better-quality feed than the highlights on NFL.com.

“The lane, it was crazy,” Crawford said.

Ravens P Sam Koch chased Crawford down because he got tired. “I’ve just got to score,” he said.

Crawford said he played only one snap on defense. Suspended CB Cedric Griffin’s snaps went to Johnson.

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K Kai Forbath is now 14-for-14 to start his NFL career. He hit from 48, 49 and 34 yards Sunday on a soggy, chewed up field.

Let media darling Nick Sundberg, Washington’s long snapper, explain the importance and offer the insight:

“It just says a lot about his preparation and his mentality as a kicker just to not let things that he can’t control get to him,” Sundberg said. “There are so many external factors – wind, rain, the field being sloppy – that a lot of guys let get in their mind. He’s nails. He doesn’t think about that stuff. He just goes out there and swings his leg like he knows he can. He trusts himself, and I think that’s one of his biggest upsides. Just having faith in himself, letting his body take over and just swinging his leg and making the kick.”

Forbath’s short kickoffs were problematic – Ravens KR Jacoby Jones averaged 29 yards per return – but he saved his best for the one that followed the game-tying touchdown. With 29 seconds left in a tie game, Forbath bounced a ball over the pylon. If it had been a couple inches shorter and had gone out of bounds before reaching the end zone, the Ravens would have gained possession at their 40 – good position to move into range for a game-winning field goal. Instead, the Ravens kneeled down and sent the game to overtime.

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RB Alfred Morris finished with 122 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries, but another lost fumble is a major issue. The Ravens turned it into a touchdown, and took control of the game for awhile after that. Morris lost only one fumble through the first 11 games of the season. Now he has lost two in consecutive games.

Morris has earned the privilege of playing in spite of those fumbles, and the Redskins don’t have another back with as good a combination of vision, balance and toughness, but coach Mike Shanahan has little tolerance for those giveaways.

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The Ravens’ linebackers did as well against the zone-read play-action passes as any defense I can remember, especially in the second half. They were disciplined, under control, didn’t sell out coming up to the line of scrimmage and generally seemed to stay where they were supposed to be. They effectively covered the middle of the field.

The result was evident in Baltimore’s three sacks and eight quarterback hits. QB Robert Griffin III at times held the ball too long because those passes weren’t open.

Also, notice how the big plays Washington hit against Philadelphia and Dallas to start this winning streak haven’t connected in the last two games against New York and Baltimore. The latter two defenses adjusted by playing safeties deep with a willingness to sacrifice shorter completions.

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The Redskins pass defense broke down too often in the first half. Nothing new there.

“We had a couple great play calls defensively and just didn’t execute,” CB DeAngelo Hall said. “When that happens, it’s terribly frustrating. When you can go out there and play that bad and still come out with a win, all you can do is smile…and be hard on yourself because you know you got away with one.”

Hall assumed blame for his own lack of execution. It appeared he misjudged the distance of QB Joe Flacco’s throw on WR Anquan Boldin’s second touchdown catch, a 31-yarder. He also appeared to expect help from FS Madieu Williams on Boldin’s 19-yard touchdown on Baltimore’s opening drive, but Williams did not get over in time. Hall referred to double teams that were unsuccessful.

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The Redskins surrendered a season-high 186 rushing yards. Tackling was problematic at times. Ravens RBs Ray Rice (6.1 ypc) and Bernard Pierce (6.6 ypc) did well locating holes, changing direction if necessary and bouncing runs outside.

The defense, however, made enough plays to win, as has been the case throughout this winning streak. OLB Rob Jackson beat LT Michael Oher around the edge to force QB Joe Flacco to fumble, which the Redskins recovered and turned into a field goal. OLB Ryan Kerrigan’s quarterback hit resulted in an interception inside the red zone after the Redskins’ Cover-0 blitz outnumbered the blockers Baltimore kept in, 6 to 5.

…that’s it for tonight. Four straight wins. Who’d have thunk it?