The Washington Times - November 23, 2012, 01:00PM

ARLINGTON, Texas | Here’s what I’m thinking immediately after the Redskins’ 38-31 victory over the Dallas Cowboys:

Six days ago the Redskins were 3-6 and on life support. Now, after two divisional victories in five days, they absolutely are in this NFC East race. They trail first-place New York by 1.5 games in the standings, with New York hosting red-hot Green Bay on Sunday night. And if Green Bay wins, Washington’s Monday night home game against the Giants on Dec. 3 would be for first place. That’s another must-win game because Washington already lost to New York, 27-23, on Oct. 21.

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The Redskins’ resurgence is stunning, considering how lifeless they were in a 21-13 home loss to woeful Carolina on Nov. 4. But coming off the bye week, Washington has rediscovered its winning formula: forcing turnovers and explosive plays on offense.

It all amounts to a newfound confidence and belief among players. That was obvious inside a buzzing locker room after the game. And the importance of that can’t be overstated in light of how bleak things looked after the Carolina game. This is the time of year when teams good separate from those that aren’t. A confident team plays fast and, by extension, better, ILB Lorenzo Alexander said.

“Guys, I think, are flying around and feeling confident about themselves,” Alexander said. “Ultimately, when you feel confident you make more plays because you’re not second guessing when you react.”

That was not the case before the bye, he said.

“I think guys were just hesitant, not sure, especially when you give up a play. ‘Did I see it right? Am I good?’” Alexander said. “Once you start making some plays, getting some confidence, having some big hits, you just start flying around. I think that’s what starting to happen for us.”

Veteran TE Chris Cooley back in the summer talked about how the most important aspect of a season is whether a team jells and plays its best beginning at about this time. And he would know, having been part of Washington’s late-season playoff runs in 2005 and 2007.

Time will tell whether that happens this season – and it still is premature to talk about the postseason because Washington still is a sub.-500 team. But players do sense something is happening. And the fact that, at the very least, they’ll play a meaningful game in December in 11 days is an important accomplishment for this team.

“I feel the sense that something is building,” QB Robert Griffin III said. “When you’re 3-6, you’re character of your team is tested. I experienced playing on some teams that had tough years, but it’s how they respond after those losses.”

“I just feel like our team has got something to play for again,” LG Kory Lichtensteiger said. “We’re a team that’s starting to his our stride at the right time. I think you can feel there’s a little electricity in here.”

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QB Robert Griffin III continues to outdo himself. I sometimes feel sheepish gushing about him, but he does so many things well and his impact is so massive that gushing probably doesn’t give him enough credit. I’m pretty much to the point where there’s so no such thing as hyperbole when writing about him. He has completely changed this franchise, and he’s only getting better.

In his first nationally televised game as a professional, in his central Texas homecoming, in front of President George W. Bush and Baylor coach Art Briles and many other family and friends, Griffin met the moment with aplomb, as we’ve come to expect.

Consider he engineered the Redskins’ first ever victory over Dallas on Thanksgiving. They were 0-6. Billy Kilmer lost to the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. So did Joe Theismann and Mark Rypien.

Griffin, though, just 11 games into his career, tossed four touchdown passes and led a game-clinching field goal drive. He was 20 of 28 passing for 311 yards. Just like last Sunday against Philadelphia, he gave his receivers chances to make plays.

He effectively threw into tight windows, specifically on WR Pierre Garcon’s 58-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown. His deep throw on WR Aldrick Robinson’s 68-yard touchdown had enough air under it that Robinson was able to run underneath it. His back-hip throw to WR Santana Moss was perfectly timed and perfectly accurate.

And when the Redskins needed to move the ball in the fourth quarter after Dallas decreased its deficit to 35-28, Griffin completed 3 of 4 passes for 39 yards. He stood tall in the pocket and hit Moss over the middle for 23 yards on second-and-11. Washington was backed up at its 19-yard line and desperately needed to recapture some momentum. Griffin’s previous throw was an interception, but he put that behind him and hit Moss in stride over the middle.

A lot goes into this abstract concept of “meeting the moment,” so to speak, but I believe Griffin’s ability to do it is rooted in his preparation. I mean the way he practices on the field and how he studies off it. He’s smart and talented, and of course those are necessary traits, but when the pressure intensifies and the spotlight is on, athletes rely on their training. Griffin trains so thoroughly physically and mentally that he shines.

“He has the clutch quality you’re always looking for from your quarterback,” LG Kory Lichtensteiger said. “He’s a guy that’s not afraid of a big situation and not afraid to put the team on his shoulders.”

***

Here’s what Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had to say about Griffin: “I was in awe of RG3 and the plays he was making. They made some great catches. They made some great plays.”

He continued: “There’s a lot of Redskins that have made me sad tonight, and I mean the way they played.”

Jones learned what the other two teams in the division did earlier this season: Griffin is going to be a huge problem for them going forward.

Through three games (two on the road), one against each NFC East team, he is 54 of 71 passing (76.1 percent) for 256.3 yards per game, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. He also has averaged 7.5 yards on 27 rushes. His passer rating is 138.4. Those are phenomenal numbers.

They’re a great indication that Griffin is going to get the Redskins out of last place. It might not be this year, but the Redskins are as good at quarterback as any other team in the NFC East, and that means the future is bright.

***

We saw why Mike and Kyle Shanahan were willing to give WR Pierre Garcon $20.5 million guaranteed back in March. His speed and physicality give this offense the potential to be elite. The Redskins are 4-1 when he plays and 1-5 when he doesn’t. They have averaged 30 points in games he has played, compared to 24.2 when he has sat out.

His 58-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown feature two particularly impressive elements. QB Robert Griffin III intentionally threw the ball behind Garcon on a crossing route because LB Bruce Carter Dropped into the middle after stepping up against play action. Griffin zipped the throw just beyond Carter’s fingertips. Garcon had to reach back, and he ended up spinning around 360 degrees. The catch was a fantastic adjustment and demonstration of body control.

“I got lucky, man,” Garcon said. “I just put my hands out and tried to give the best effort I could, and it stuck.”

After the catch, Garcon quickly accelerated back to full speed. He beat CB Brandon Carr around the edge and then pulled away from Carr running straight ahead toward the end zone. His ability to accelerate surprised me because of his sprained right foot, and it makes you wonder if how much better Garcon might be when fully healthy.

“I haven’t ran that fast in a long time,” Garcon said, laughing.

Garcon also made an important 19-yard catch to set up RB Alfred Morris’ touchdown during the 28-point second quarter. He beat Carr on a slant, separating by using quick feet to set Carr up to the outside and then explosively cutting back in.

Garcon finished with five catches 93 yards and a touchdown. With WR Aldrick Robinson threatening defenses vertically and Garcon showing signs of health, the Redskins offense suddenly has regained its speed. If they get back to scoring 30 points per game, then they’ll be tough to beat no matter how many yards the defense gives up.

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Washington’s defense was stellar during the first 43 minutes of the game, forcing three turnovers and surrendering only six points. That enabled the Redskins to build a big enough lead to win.

We know the defense is going to surrender big plays and yards. The sample size is large enough through 11 games for that to be clear. Turnovers, however, make up for that.

CB Josh Wilson didn’t give up on the play after he slipped on a third-down completion to WR Dez Bryant, and he forced a fumble by getting his helmet on the ball.

CB DeAngelo Hall positioned himself for an interception by jamming WR Cole Beasley when Beasley ran a crossing route from the slot.

ILB London Fletcher read QB Tony Romo and switched off one receiver to another in order to intercept Romo in the second half. When individual players execute like that and capitalize on opportunities such as Romo forcing passes to receivers that aren’t open, the Redskins are a dangerous team.

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Mike Shanahan and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett ran the cornerback and slot blitzes that were effective against the Eagles last Sunday when SS Brandon Meriweather was in the lineup. Against Philly, we saw the positive impact of Meriweather’s speed and how his ability to cover fostered flexibility in sending cornerbacks after the passer.

With SS DeJon Gomes replacing the injured Meriweather Thursday against Dallas, the Redskins continued to be aggressive with those blitzes, and they had some success disrupting QB Tony Romo’s timing.

“DJ being able to play a little bit early in the season, then got benched at one point, I think he’s felt that taste of being out there,” CB DeAngelo Hall said. “It has been taken from him. When B came out last week, DJ came in and had a big hit. We could just see his confidence level was a lot more than when was out there at first. He’s able to do a lot of the same things. He’s athletic. He’s able to cover a lot of guys in the slot. We were able, when they went four wide, leave our nickel package out there and let them cover.”

Hall, though, acknowledged there is a difference between Meriweather, a former first-round pick, and Gomes, a fifth-rounder. Meriweather is faster and more experienced. Gomes will play that role for now.

“We were able to kind of do the same things [with Gomes in the game], but y’all saw the impact Brandon made [against Philadelphia]. It was amazing. Josh [Wilson] was joking, like, when Brandon was out there, he kind of stuck us with an epi-needle. We were all immediately juiced up. It kind of carried on into this game. Anytime you’ve got guys fighting for their lives out here, you’re going to get some good effort from them.”

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Speaking of Hall, his decision to slide short of the end zone instead of scoring after recovering Dallas’ onsides kick was interesting.

He was asked if his decision not to score was a difficult one.

“As big of a selfish guy y’all think I am, nah,” Hall said to a round of laughter from reporters. “Kyle [Shanahan] even joked with me about going in there to score. He wants to be the No. 1 offense. But I was always taught to let the offense close the game. That’s the best formation or the best plays, to be able to take a knee.”

As Kevin Sheehan and Andy Pollin noted on ESPN980 this morning, points scored factors into some of the tiebreakers for postseason qualification and seeding. But six other tiebreakers involving wins would be considered before one involving points is applied, so it’s highly unlikely Hall’s decision to slide would cost the Redskins anything.

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K Kai Forbath’s 48-yard field goal that made it a two-possession game late in the fourth quarter was monumental. He’s another rookie who rose to meet a pressure-packed moment. He’s able mentally to treat those big kicks like any other, which helps him keep calm and repeat the kicking technique he hones in practice. What a pickup he has been for the Redskins.

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RB Alfred Morris (113 yards, 24 carries, one touchdown) continues to provide great balance to the offense. His patience and ability to press the hole helps offensive linemen gain advantageous leverage on their blocks. He sets up blocks so well by drawing defenders into his blockers.

Dallas’ defense was undisciplined at times Thursday overrunning plays and getting caught looking in the backfield. Morris’ running ability forces that, especially in the zone read game. From my vantage point in the corner of the end zone, it appeared he had many nice cutback lanes, and it will be interesting to review that on the coaches’ film.

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ILB London Fletcher and FS Madieu Williams separated Dallas receivers from the ball in the end zone on separate plays. Fletcher hit Miles Austin in the first quarter, and Williams hit Dez Bryant in the fourth. Such breakups – not just in the end zone – have been elusive this season. Too often Redskins defenders have arrived a split second late. Maybe this goes back to what ILB Lorenzo Alexander said about confidence fostering faster play. Whatever it is, Fletcher’s breakup, in particular, helped the set tone for the game by limiting Dallas to an early field goal

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WR Brandon Banks’ field awareness was pitiful when he fielded a punt at the goal line. That can’t happen. At least he contributed on offense with an 8-yard reception on third-and-4 in that massive second quarter. His field awareness was much better on that play. He caught the pass a yard short of the line-to-gain and didn’t waste any motion in getting straight up the field.

Banks also was open deep down the middle for a sure touchdown on one play, but Griffin was pressured before he could set and throw it. 

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I’ll finish with Griffin. His toughness was one of many impressive traits Thursday. He put up great numbers despite being pressured throughout the game. Dallas had four sacks and was credited with eight knockdowns. Even after DE DeMarcus Ware speared him to the turf – which I believe should have been a penalty – he got up. That’s just part of what makes him a leader.