- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 1999

They left feeling the weight of six straight seasons with no playoff berth. They returned home with a spot in the postseason secured, a division championship and a reason to celebrate.

The Washington Redskins caught a champagne red-eye flight home yesterday "a party … at 30,000 feet," running back Brian Mitchell called it after Sunday's 26-20 come-from-behind, overtime victory at San Francisco.

That victory gave the Redskins their first NFC East title since 1991 and their first playoff berth since 1992.

The Redskins still must play the Miami Dolphins on Sunday at FedEx Field, but just reaching the playoffs for the first time brought a sense of pride and relief to a group of players weary of losing.

"There used to be a tradition here, and to get back to the playoffs is something you dream about," wide receiver Albert Connell said.

This has been a trying season for the Redskins in many ways.

New owner Dan Snyder publicly promised coach Norv Turner would be fired if his team did not make the playoffs. Snyder fired longtime general manager Charley Casserly and dozens of staff members this summer.

The team has been terrific at times and terrible at others. A 4-1 start was followed by three losses in four games. The Redskins have alternated wins and losses the past five games.

"We started off so fast that you thought we were on our way," Mitchell said. "Then we started to sputter a little bit, but we've proven at crucial times when we need to do something, we can. We've been up and down, but we went out there and seized the moment."

The Redskins (9-6) looked awful at times Sunday the defense was pillaged by the 49ers, who ran for 250 yards. But they still found ways to win, scoring the final 16 points of the game.

"The adrenaline, the emotion, everybody wanted it so bad," Connell said. "Even though a lot of teams helped us to clinch, we had to keep going. We knew we could do it. We made plays and turnovers when we needed them."

Said defensive coordinator Mike Nolan: "The biggest positive impression is through all the adversity we faced, we stopped them and made turnovers. In a big game, when you respond on the road, that's a big step for the football team."

Yesterday, players donned NFC East champions' burgundy caps, confident of their chances in the postseason. The Redskins have won two overtime games and another in the final seconds this season. That resiliency could help them win in the playoffs.

"The sense you get is there's a purpose," said special teams coach LeCharls McDaniel, who played on the Redskins' 1982 Super Bowl championship team. "People believe any time you're driving to the Super Bowl, if you have enough people that believe and enough good leadership, that will get people going."

The question now is, going against whom and when?

The Redskins will host a playoff game. However, the possible opponent, round and date vary so widely that the staff already is breaking down game film for three scenarios.

"It's like getting to Christmas, but not getting to open your presents yet," Nolan said.

Possible playoff scenarios range from playing the Dallas Cowboys in the opening round to receiving a first-round bye.

The Redskins will receive a first-round bye if they beat Miami on Sunday and Tampa Bay loses and Minnesota loses or ties. Washington then would play the remaining top-seeded first-round team Jan. 15 or 16.

Washington otherwise will play host to the worst wild-card seed in the first round Jan. 8 or 9. It could be the Dallas Cowboys, the Carolina Panthers, the Detroit Lions, the Green Bay Packers or the New York Giants.

Like their three championship teams of the 1980s and early '90s, these Redskins are relying on team chemistry seldom found in this era of free agency. Indeed, several of the team's leaders are first-year Redskins.

"The new guys Marco Coleman, Larry Centers, Brad Johnson were crucial," Connell said. "You need [leadership] in the tough times. It's one big family. I hadn't seen that before."

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