Despite all the talk about it, the Washington Redskins' playoff destiny is not solely in their hands. The Redskins could win their final three games and still not qualify for postseason.
Here's the deal. Washington would finish 10-6 overall and 10-2 in the NFC if it completes a five-game run of the table by beating Dallas (8-5) on Sunday, the New York Giants (9-4) and Philadelphia (5-8).
"It's good for football to have the Cowboys and Indians playing for something this late in the season," Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington said.
With three victories, Washington would beat out Dallas because of its first sweep of the series in a decade. However, if New York won its two other games against Kansas City and Oakland, the Giants still would capture the NFC East with an 11-5 record.
If they don't win the division, the Redskins would be fighting a crowded field for one of the NFC's two wild-card berths.
If Minnesota wins out, it would be 11-5. One of Minnesota's last three games is against Chicago, but if the Bears win their other two games, they also would be 11-5. Either the Vikings or Bears would win the NFC North, and the other still would be ahead of the Redskins despite Washington's season-opening victory over Chicago.
That leaves the three contenders from the NFC South, one of which will win that division. Tampa Bay -- which has the tiebreaker over Washington -- and Carolina are both 9-4, and if each beats lowly New Orleans and splits its other games, that would mean 11-5 records for them, too. So even if Washington finishes ahead of Atlanta (7-5 before last night's game with the Saints), it wouldn't matter because the Redskins and Falcons would miss the playoffs.
"We need some people to lose," linebacker Lemar Marshall said. "[But] we can't worry about that. Our situation is basically win or go home. If we don't win this week, we can't even think about the playoffs."
The Redskins-Cowboys rivalry has not had this much meaning since Dec. 13, 1992, when coach Joe Gibbs' Redskins beat the Cowboys 20-17 for the last time during his initial Hall of Fame tenure on safety Danny Copeland's recovery of quarterback Troy Aikman's late fumble in the end zone. Both Washington and Dallas qualified for the playoffs.
"It's a good position to be playing games with three games to go that mean a lot," Gibbs said. "That's exciting. I'm glad we get a chance to play a real big game."
Indeed, Washington hasn't been 7-6 since 2000 when that record got coach Norv Turner fired.
"A lot of teams out there don't even have a chance, but we have a chance, so I'm happy," offensive tackle Chris Samuels said.
If Washington does wind up 10-6 and on the out of the postseason, it would be just the second team to do so in the last 14 years, joining the 2003 Miami Dolphins. The only other such hard-luck cases since the conference playoffs were expanded to six teams in 1990 were Philadelphia and San Francisco in 1991.
Gibbs has been down this road before. His 1989 Redskins won their last five games to finish 10-6 but missed the playoffs, as did Green Bay at 10-6, prompting the addition of a third wild card in 1990.
Those Redskins rued a home loss to the otherwise winless Cowboys. Guard Randy Thomas knows no one wants a repeat.
"Even today, I go to McDonald's and people are talking about the Dallas game," Thomas said. "They're not talking about the game we just won. At 7-6, I can't say we're on our way or we're not. We're just trying to win games. We've been through some tough times, but we're together right now. Our confidence should be pretty high coming off two wins on the road. But we haven't played one of our big games lately. Hopefully, we're saving it for this week."