Everything points to a tough night for the 6-7 Washington Redskins. They've lost four of their past five games. Their immobile backup quarterback will make his first start in a decade against the 9-4 New York Giants' league-leading pass rush. And the Giants have whipped them by a cumulative 75-17 the past three years on the road.
What's more, the Redskins lost all three of their previously most daunting challenges this season, slip sliding away 17-14 in the rain at 11-2 Green Bay, getting crushed 52-7 at 13-0 New England and failing to complete a comeback in a 28-23 loss at 12-1 Dallas.
And yet ... in 2004, the 5-10 Redskins closed by upsetting playoff-bound Minnesota. In 2005, they beat the playoff-bound Giants and Philadelphia in sweeping their final five games to make the playoffs for the first time in six years. And this weekend last year, 4-9 Washington dampened New Orleans' celebration of its NFC South title by stunning the host Saints.
"We always seem to put ourselves in this situation and now we have to get out of it again," fullback Mike Sellers said.
The Redskins are just 27-34 in the four seasons since coach Joe Gibbs returned to Washington in 2004, but they were 6-3 in the final three games of the first three seasons. The Hall of Famer's teams were 27-9 in those weeks during his first 12-year Washington tenure.
The Redskins were almost always in a playoff drive of some sort during that era and while they trail the Giants, Vikings (7-6) and Saints (6-7) in the battle for the NFC's two-wild card berths, they will remain in the race at least through next weekend. The Giants can clinch a third straight playoff spot with a victory tonight.
"It's like we've got three playoff games in a row, actually four starting last week," Gibbs said, including the 24-16 victory over Chicago 10 days ago, next Sunday night's visit to the Vikings and the Dec. 30 finale against the Cowboys.
But as Sellers said, "The Giants are playing well. If you look ahead, you'll get your butt kicked."
That's what the Giants usually do to the Redskins at home. After opening Gibbs' second era by beating Tampa Bay, Washington committed seven turnovers in a 20-14 loss the next week at Giants Stadium. The next year, New York, playing in memory of beloved owner Wellington Mara who had died that week, pounded the Redskins 36-0. Last year, Washington had righted itself with two straight victories but exited the Meadowlands with a 19-3 defeat after managing just 164 yards of total offense.
"For some reason, we go into the Meadowlands and we always get their best and we don't play well," linebacker Marcus Washington said.
Receiver Santana Moss, one of six Redskins (four starters) who used to call Giants Stadium home, said the nasty weather expected tonight in northern New Jersey could help the visitors.
"We practice in the cold, the rain and the wind," said Moss, who played for the Jets from 2001 to 2004. "We don't have an indoor practice facility like the Giants. Coach feels like this is our kind of weather."
Redskins assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams agrees.
"You always look for the wind to be howling and snow to come down and all that kind of stuff," Williams said. "You always like that as a defensive coach ... so the more the merrier."
The Redskins seemed on their merry way to a 3-0 start while dropping the Giants to 0-3 at halftime of the Week 3 game in Washington. The Redskins led 17-3, but the Giants scored three second-half touchdowns and stopped running back Ladell Betts twice at the goal line in the final minute to win 24-17. Five of Washington's six losses since are by a total of 23 points.
"That's when everything started," defensive end Phillip Daniels lamented. "We're right where we said we don't want to be, but sometimes I think we play better with our backs against the wall."
Given how little production they've received from backs Betts and Clinton Portis lately — an average of just 73.3 rushing yards the past four games — if the Redskins are going to play better than usual at Giants Stadium they'll need another strong performance from Todd Collins.
The 36-year-old quarterback stepped in for the injured Jason Campbell against the Bears and earned NFC Offensive Player of The Week honors with 224 passing yards, two touchdowns and a 144.6 passer rating.
"Nothing was surprising to me because we see him every day in practice," Moss said of Collins, whose last start was Dec. 14, 1997. "I feel like whatever you can do in practice, you can do in a game. He knows how to get rid of the football, knows where it has to go. Todd knows the offense so well [after seven years in associate head coach Al Saunders' system], it's like second nature to him."
That's what getting to the quarterback is to the Giants. Right end Osi Umenyiora has 12 sacks, three more than left end Michael Strahan, whose 141½ career sacks ranks fifth all-time.
"Protection is huge," center Casey Rabach said. "The best thing for us would be to get the running game going and stay out of those third-and-long situations where they really thrive with that pass rush. They do a heck of a job of getting pressure with their front four."
No team has endured the pressure the Redskins have with safety Sean Taylor's murder sandwiched between the third and fourth consecutive defeats that turned their promising 5-3 first half into a 5-7 record.
"We really went through some tough things, but we definitely still have a chance to make the playoffs even though we let some games slip away," Washington said. "That says a lot about the coaches here and this team. We're going to fight to the end."
Note — With Campbell sidelined, Gibbs decided he couldn't go into today's game with starting receiver Antwaan Randle El, a college quarterback, as his No. 3 passer. So Gibbs promoted rookie Sam Hollenbach from the practice squad to join veterans Collins and Mark Brunell. Hollenbach, who started at Maryland the past two seasons, had only been re-signed on Friday after being cut in July. The Redskins waived receiver Jimmy Farris yet again to make room for Hollenbach.
WHAT IT MEANS ...
IF THE GIANTS WIN:
• New York clinches a wild card berth.
• The Redskins would not be eliminated even if New Orleans, Minnesota and Detroit all win.
IF THE REDSKINS WIN:
• They're still alive. Losses by New Orleans to Arizona and Minnesota to Chicago (tomorrow night) would help their cause.