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Halfway to somewhere

Nine weeks. It's not a long time except for an NFL team.

Nine weeks ago, the Redskins just hoped the shaky summer performance of Patrick Ramsey wasn't a sign of things to come, that LaVar Arrington's strong finish to the preseason meant he was back, and that coach Joe Gibbs had successfully reworked an offense that last season spiked sales of NoDoz and Pepto-Bismol.

Today, the Redskins, absent from the playoffs since 1999, start preparations for the second half of the season owning the second wild-card spot in the NFC.

Ramsey is an afterthought. Arrington's saga, the cause of conspiracy theories worthy of Leakgate a month ago, turned sunny again. And Gibbs' offense revived nicely, thanks to a reborn Mark Brunell and newcomer Santana Moss.

The Monday Morning Quarterback is recovered from another down-to-the-wire finish on Sunday night, followed by a sleep-deprived day. Now he makes a special Wednesday appearance, contact lenses back in place and clear-eyed, to deliver his midseason take on the 5-3 Redskins.

Q: T.O. is toast. Favre is fried. Smooter and the Vikes are sunk. We've beaten the Cowboys, Bears and Seahawks. Motown, here we come!

A: First of all, you sound like Dick Vitale. Second, that wasn't even a question. More important, let's not get carried away.

Throw out the blowout loss to the Giants (ouch) and victory over the 49ers (please), and the Redskins have outscored their foes by a whopping four points. And have you noticed the Falcons, Panthers and Giants all have better records?

Q: Yeah, but Michael Vick's not even the best quarterback in his family, Carolina had its run two years ago, and there's no way it's going to be Manning vs. Manning in the Super Bowl. It's finally got to be our year again, doesn't it?

A: Look: The Redskins are better than most of us thought they would be because Brunell, at 35, found the fountain of youth Ponce de Leon couldn't and because Moss is the most dazzling weapon they've had since Brunell was in college.

But just because Washington won the last Northern Super Bowl in Minneapolis 14 years ago doesn't mean it's Destination Detroit come February. This team has plenty of problems.

Q: Problems? What problems? We're 5-1 in the NFC and 4-0 at home. The only other teams in the top 11 in offense and defense are the Cowboys and Seahawks, who we've beaten, and the Colts, who we're playing in Super Bowl XL.

Why should I listen to a guy who picked the Redskins to go 6-10?

A: Because I've covered this team for most of the past 17 seasons and because, unlike you, I can see clearly.

Let's start with Gregg Williams' defense, which keeps getting torched by big plays and has allowed the fourth-most rushing yards in the NFC. The defense also has forced the fewest turnovers in the conference and produced the fewest sacks.

Q: But LaVar's starting again. That will fix everything, won't it?

A: Arrington is much more of a playmaker than Warrick Holdman, but the leaks in the defense haven't been one person's fault. The entire unit just isn't tackling as well or dominating games the way it did last season.

If gimpy tackles Cornelius Griffin and Joe Salave'a join Brandon Noble in going down for the count, there's no way to adequately replace them.

Q: Maybe the guys on D are relaxing a little because they know the O is so much better, huh?

A: The offense is considerably better, but it has serious problems, too.

Q: Like what?

A: The pass protection has been shoddy, the running game has been spotty and Moss and Chris Cooley are Brunell's only reliable targets. Brunell has not thrown many picks, but he and his bunch keep fumbling.

And don't forget how incredibly lucky the Redskins have been to make it through eight games without losing even one offensive start to an injury.

Q: You really are Mr. Negative, aren't you?

A: Mr. Truth-Teller. And the truth is the Redskins are serious contenders for the first time since Dan Snyder's 2000 shopping spree. It also doesn't hurt that the Vikings and, perhaps the Eagles, imploded.

Q: Gibbs' teams always get better as the year goes on, don't they?

A: That was less true toward the end of his first Redskins tenure. His last team of that era backed into the 1992 playoffs despite losing its last two games. And some of the current Redskins were part of the 2-6 collapses in 1996 and 2000 that turned sure things into also-rans.

Q: All right, Mr. Know It All. What happens the rest of the way?

A: The Redskins split their road games against the Bucs and their tough defense and the Rams and their swift offense. They beat Norv's Raiders, lose to Marty's Chargers and whip the Cardinals.

That puts the Redskins at 8-5 heading into those last three NFC East games against the Cowboys and Giants at home and the Eagles on the road.

Two victories at the Big Ugly by the Beltway put Gibbs and Co. in the playoffs, or just beating Cowboys gives the Redskins the tiebreak edge and could do the trick alone.

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