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Redskins embrace role of underdog

- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 14, 2006

He is 17-5 in the playoffs, owns three Super Bowl rings and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He will be facing a team that hasn't won a postseason game since 1984 and has never reached the sport's ultimate game.

But that means squat to Joe Gibbs entering the Washington Redskins' NFC Divisional playoff game today at Seattle.

Gibbs doesn't see the Seahawks' playoff futility. He sees a team that rested last week while the Redskins gutted out a 17-10 win at Tampa Bay in the wild-card round.

"I would rather play Omaha State or somebody," he said.

Since Omaha State doesn't exist and the San Francisco 49ers have packed up for the winter, that "somebody" is Seattle, which won a franchise-record 13 games, earning a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

The Redskins (11-6), with an offense that set a record for ineffectiveness last week, will be playing their seventh consecutive must-win game and their third straight on the road.

Throw in the fact a No. 6 seed has never won a divisional round game and it doesn't look good for the Redskins.

But they're embracing the opportunity and remain confident. Despite Seattle's gaudy statistics, the Redskins took a why-not-us attitude on their cross-country flight Thursday night.

"We've got nothing to lose," safety Ryan Clark said. "[Nine-and-a-half-point] underdogs. Best team in the NFC. At their stadium. But we'll be out there on Saturday and see what happens. We've got a lot of underdog guys on the team. We thrive on it and relish it."

For every player with a monster contract on the Redskins -- Mark Brunell, Clinton Portis, LaVar Arrington -- there are players like Clark and Lemar Marshall who survived being cut or buried on another team's practice squad to play key roles for the Redskins.

But the Redskins, looking to make their first NFC Championship game since the 1991 season, also have everything to gain.

Just ask Brunell. He helped Jacksonville to the AFC Championship game after 1996 and 1999 seasons. The Jaguars lost both times, and he hasn't been back since.

Just ask Arrington. It took him six seasons to reach the postseason, and he responded with an interception last week. No matter what his future holds, he doesn't want this ride to end just yet.

Just ask Gibbs. Lured out of retirement two years ago this week, he's in search of a sixth conference title game appearance.

"I know my feelings are the same," he said. "I was scared to death then, and I'm scared to death now."

Gibbs has reason to be concerned. Seattle is that good on offense.

The Seahawks led the NFL with 28.3 points a game. Even though they played only five games against teams with winning records, Gibbs correctly points out: "You don't win games by lucking out, and they've won 13 of them."

But the Seahawks have some of their own demons -- like six consecutive playoff losses dating back to 1984.

"It's not something we're hung up on," said quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, one of five Pro Bowl selections on the Seahawks' offense. "What we care about is this team, this year and what we can do."

Also inconsequential, both teams say, is the Redskins' 20-17 overtime win over Seattle in Week 4 at FedEx Field.

Seattle reeled off 10 consecutive wins after that defeat, while the Redskins went 2-6 in the eight games that followed.

"Both teams are much better," Redskins assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said. "We're going to have to play much better than we did the first time because they're clicking on all cylinders. We thought all year that they were maybe the best group of offensive talent we played all season."

Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander was named league MVP following 1,880 yards rushing and an NFL-record 28 touchdowns. He's complemented by Hasselbeck, who threw for 24 touchdowns, only nine interceptions and a 98.2 passer rating.

"Our guys feel they have the best [offensive] balance," Gibbs said. "Their running back can hurt you in every way, and when we played them the first time, we played one of the best games we've played, and he still got away from us a couple times."

But the Seahawks' offense can't score when it is not on the field. That was key in the teams' first meeting and the one carryover factor that bears watching.

The Redskins led 7-3 at halftime but controlled the ball for 21:57 of the first half, running 42 plays to Seattle's 21. For the game, the Redskins were 13-for-18 on third down.

The Redskins' offense, though, did next to nothing at Tampa Bay last week, gaining only 120 yards. They had trouble gaining a yard, much less a first down.

"I think you have to be concerned," Gibbs said. "We didn't do much last week, and we were up against a good group."

Tampa Bay ranked first defensively. Seattle was tied for 16th but had a league-leading 50 sacks and yielded fewer points a game (16.9) than the Bucs (17.1). At home, the Seahawks were 8-0, and opponents committed a league-high 24 false-start penalties.

When the Seahawks did get the ball in the second half, they kept it for second-half scoring drives of 12, eight and 14 plays, two of them for more than 80 yards. Seattle led the league with 24 scoring drives of 80-plus yards.

The teams have contrasting philosophies on offense. Gibbs said the Redskins are all about "balance."

Hasselbeck said: "Ball control isn't really our thing. We're into yards and points and our tempo. It's going to be important to start fast, but if for some reason we don't and they come out and play well on defense, so what. We just have to weather the storm."

Whatever Seattle's philosophy, the Redskins might have to break 25 points to win today.

"What happened last week wasn't the normal situation," Gibbs said. "A lot of teams are really close, so all it takes sometimes is something to swing one way or the other."