- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Astonishingly, the 5-9 Washington Redskins are very much alive for the playoffs.

“I don’t know how realistic it is, but we have a chance, and that’s all you can ask for at this time of year, considering our kind of year,” Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said. “The fact that you could go into the last two games and have a fighting chance, it’s fun to be a part of that.”

If Washington wins at Dallas (5-9) on Sunday and four other sub-.500 contenders lose their games this weekend, the Redskins will be in postseason if they win their Jan.2 finale against Minnesota (8-6).

“Are you pulling my leg?” Redskins defensive tackle Joe Salave’a said incredulously. “[Making the playoffs] has been long gone out of our minds. It’s probably going to take a couple hours to sink in that we’re still in the picture.”

The playoffs scenario isn’t that far-fetched if Washington wins in Dallas for the first time since 1995. Next, Philadelphia and Atlanta — with the first and second seeds already clinched — can’t take it easy and lose to St. Louis (6-8) and New Orleans (6-8), respectively. The other parts of the equation have the New York Giants (5-9) extending their losing streak to eight at Cincinnati (6-8) and Carolina (6-8) losing at Tampa Bay (5-9).

“It’s shocking,” said offensive tackle Chris Samuels, still waiting for his first playoff game after five seasons in Washington.

Of course, while the Redskins have won two of their last three games, their playoff pulse is more the result of the horrid state of the NFC in which only 2-12 San Francisco has been eliminated, Seattle leads the West Division at 7-7 and St. Louis currently is a wild card.

The only losing teams to make the playoffs were Cleveland and Detroit (both 4-5) in 1982 when the tournament was expanded to 16 entrants after the strike-shortened season. Only six .500 teams have reached postseason. However, the NFC could have two such undeserving qualifiers this year.

“I don’t know if it’s ever been like this,” said Gibbs, whose first NFL season was 1973. “It’s very competitive.”

With the Cowboys also alive despite losing five of their last seven games, this is suddenly the most meaningful December game in the Washington-Dallas rivalry since the last one of Gibbs’ first Redskins regime in 1992, when both teams wound up in the playoffs.

“We’re focused on Dallas,” Gibbs said. “It’s a big deal for us and a big deal for them.”

Washington’s victories over Chicago, Detroit and Tampa Bay give it the tiebreaker over those 5-9 teams. At 7-9, the Redskins would beat out Arizona because of a better NFC record, and they would have a better overall record than Dallas and New York with a victory over the Cowboys and a Giants’ loss to the Bengals. The Redskins have a better NFC record than the Saints and would have the same tiebreaker over the Rams and Panthers if St. Louis loses to Philadelphia and Carolina loses to Tampa Bay or New Orleans.

“Honestly, it was all about finishing strong and winning the last three games,” Salave’a said of the Redskins’ mind-set before Saturday’s 26-16 victory in San Francisco. “Those goals are more realistic than the playoffs. … [But] if we play these next two games the way we should play them and then get a bonus with [other contenders losing], then it kind of changes things.”

The flip side of all this is that even if the Redskins beat the Cowboys, they will be eliminated Sunday if the Panthers, Saints, Rams and Seahawks (who face the Cardinals) all win. St. Louis would have the edge on common opponents, the tiebreaker after NFC record.

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