When Jim Zorn addressed his team before the Washington Redskins began the third quarter of their season last month, he laid out the schedule - Pittsburgh, Dallas, at Seattle, New York Giants - and said the opportunity was there to enter December with control of their postseason fate.
Three defeats and four offensive touchdowns later, the Redskins face a taller task when the final quarter of the schedule starts Sunday night in Baltimore: They have no margin for error, and they will need help to extend their season into January.
The Redskins will report to work Wednesday eighth in the NFC, a game behind Atlanta and Dallas in the race for the sixth playoff spot.
“We haven’t reached that elite status,” Zorn said Monday at Redskin Park before holding a longer-than-usual team meeting that lasted nearly an hour. “It doesn’t mean we’re not good. It just means we’re one of those teams that didn’t separate. I think we’re battling. We haven’t lost heart. We haven’t lost the hope of putting a good game together.”
Those hopes better turn into reality quick or the Redskins will face a long offseason filled with questions about how starts of 4-1 and 6-2 morphed into a disappointing finish.
“We have always rallied with our backs against the wall and played well when we’re in this position,” receiver James Thrash said. “But I hate being in this position.”
Three years ago, the Redskins won their final five games to reach the playoffs; last year, a four-game win streak sent the Redskins into the postseason.
What will it take this year?
The Redskins have to bank on Dallas buckling under a tough schedule (at Pittsburgh, Giants, Baltimore, at Philadelphia) and Atlanta (at New Orleans, Tampa Bay, at Minnesota, St. Louis) falling apart. Some players said they think anything less than a 4-0 finish won’t be enough.
“That’s the way we’re looking at it, point blank,” cornerback Fred Smoot said. “Win out and let everything play out. We hold our future in our hands, so we feel if we win out, that puts us in a good position.”
If the Redskins can take solace in anything that will help them Sunday night in Baltimore, it’s their 4-1 road record this year and their 7-2 record in December and January regular-season road games since 2004.
In 2005, the Redskins reeled off wins at St. Louis, Arizona and Philadelphia down the stretch. Last season, they won prime-time road games against the Giants and Vikings to help secure a wild card berth. And already this year, they won impressively at Dallas and Philadelphia.
“We have played better on the road, and that’s kind of crazy,” defensive tackle Lorenzo Alexander said. “We’ve been backward from most teams in that sense. I don’t know if being on the road riles us up and maybe we focus in better when everything is against us in a hostile environment. I personally like going into that kind of situation.”
As road underdogs against Dallas and Philadelphia, the Redskins helped make the Cowboys one-dimensional (11 rushes, 43 passes) and limited the Eagles to 58 rush yards.
“A lot of it goes back to the way our defense has played in those games,” left tackle Pete Kendall said. “They’ve been so good, they haven’t given the opposing fans a lot of reason to get excited, and we’ve been able to weather the emotion at the beginning of the game.”