The Washington Redskins and their fans started 2006 by partying like it was 1999, the last season the team reached the playoffs.
The Redskins on Sunday clinched a postseason berth with a 31-20 victory over the Eagles in Philadelphia, setting off a celebration in the visitors' locker room at Lincoln Financial Field.
Linebackers Marcus Washington and LaVar Arrington gave an impromptu hip-hop performance to kick off a party that extended to an ecstatic plane ride back to Washington Dulles International Airport, where the team was greeted by a small, but hard-core, group of fans.
"To have the talent we've had since I've been here for the last four years, it was like, man, we should be in the playoffs, but we're not doing what it takes to win," said middle linebacker Lemar Marshall, whose interception in the fourth quarter set up a touchdown that put the Redskins ahead to stay. "To finally get to this point -- everybody's geeked for this. They just can't wait."
Some of that giddiness had worn off yesterday, replaced by a confidence that the Redskins can go far in the 12-team National Football League playoffs even though, as the sixth seed in their conference, they won't play a home game.
The Redskins (10-6) kick off the opening weekend of the playoffs on Saturday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., where they suffered a controversial, last-minute 36-35 defeat Nov. 13.
Tampa holds few fond memories for the Redskins. They lost their last playoff game there, a 14-13 defeat that ended the 1999 season. It also is the site of coach Joe Gibbs' worst playoff defeat when the Los Angeles Raiders whipped the Redskins 38-9 in Super Bowl XVIII to cap the 1983 season.
Elsewhere this weekend, the Jacksonville Jaguars face the defending champion New England Patriots on Saturday night. On Sunday, the New York Giants play host to the Carolina Panthers and the Cincinnati Bengals face the Pittsburgh Steelers at home.
The top seeds, the Seattle Seahawks and Chicago Bears in the National Football Conference and the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos in the American Football Conference, hold first-round byes.
The Redskins will face the Seahawks, who have won 11 of their past 12 games, in the second round if they beat Tampa Bay. They would face the Bears in Chicago in the conference championship game if they beat the Seahawks and the playoff seeding holds to form. A victory there would take them to Super Bowl XL in Detroit.
There is no hotter team, save perhaps the Seahawks, than the Redskins. Washington was on the brink of postseason elimination on Nov. 27 after a third straight loss left them with a 5-6 record and in ninth place in the conference.
"Every game has been a playoff game for us, the last five, and this is playoff game six for us," Marshall said.
Since the Redskins last made the playoffs in 1999, coaches Norv Turner, Terry Robiskie, Marty Schottenheimer and Steve Spurrier have departed. The Bengals and Arizona Cardinals are the only teams in the league that had gone longer without reaching the postseason than the Redskins.
Tight end Mike Sellers, one of just four players who played on the 1999 and the 2005 Redskins, said this playoff trip is more rewarding.
"Back then, I really didn't know what was going on," Sellers said. "Being older now, you definitely appreciate this more."
Gibbs is 13 years older than when he coached his last playoff game, but he proved this season that he still has the magic that produced three Super Bowl titles in his first tenure with the club and a sterling 57-18 record in the key months of December and January.
"It's not about me," said Gibbs, who rejoined the Redskins in January 2004. "My record, you can throw it out the window. You like to feel as a coach you can help, you can lead, you can put them in the best position. But it's not about X's and O's. It's not about strategy. It's about the players."
Said defensive lineman Renaldo Wynn: "The X's and O's have changed, but you [still] have to have the mentality to go out and be physical, hit people and have a unity, a togetherness."
That togetherness was heightened by a meeting of the veterans after an overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers on Nov. 27.
"A lot of guys were like, man, is all this work worth it?" Wynn said. "It was dismal. But then we had that meeting. Coach Gibbs and the defensive coaches said, 'It's up to you guys. You guys are the veterans. You have to lead the way. If you [do], everyone else will follow.'"
They have. The offense, balky in its running attack in the first 11 games, averaged 168 yards on the ground over the final five. The defense, which forced only 11 turnovers in the first 11 games, produced 17 takeaways the final five weeks.
"It's a great accomplishment, but I still see the hunger in guys' eyes," Wynn said. "They know we can beat [the other NFC playoff teams]. We're peaking at the right time. If we continue do the things we've been doing and continue playing as a total team, then our destiny is in our hands."
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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