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Dan Daly: Experts at nail-biting

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Every week, it seems, the Redskins send us scurrying to the record books. One week it's their remarkable string of games without an offensive turnover, the next it's Clinton Portis' streak of 120-yard rushing performances or Jason Campbell's unusual ability to avoid interceptions.

And now we find ourselves wondering: Has there ever been a Redskins team that played so many close games - and won so many close games? We find ourselves wondering this because each of the Snydermen's last six games has been decided by seven points or less, and they're 5-1 in that stretch. The only thing keeping them from a clean sweep is a 49-yard field goal by the Rams' Josh Brown on the last play.

Not to disappoint you, but there have been a few Redskins clubs that have lived as dangerously as this one (if not more so) - the '41 Redskins, for instance. That team, quarterbacked by the legendary Sammy Baugh, sweated it out practically every week. In nine of its 11 games, the final margin was a touchdown or less.

Then there are the '67 Redskins, who played - I kid you not - 11 consecutive nail-biters. The scores were 38-34, 17-14, 20-20, 28-28, 17-13, 27-21, 31-28, 27-20, 42-37, 35-35 and 15-10. (That's right, folks, three ties. This, remember, was before overtime.)

But neither of those clubs cleaned up in close games the way this year's club has. (The '41 Redskins went 5-4 in them, the '67 team went 4-4-3.) No, winning five of six white knucklers in as many weeks is definitely out of the ordinary - and one of the big stories of the season so far. When Jim Zorn's band of thrill seekers has a chance to win, it usually does.

"Unbelievable," he said after the latest narrow escape, Sunday's 14-11 victory over the visiting Browns. "It's the NFL more than anything. These teams are very good. We beat a very good football team today [one that [-] how quickly we forget - won 10 games last season]. You've gotta find ways to win."

There's more to it than that, though. Zorn inherited from Joe Gibbs not just a veteran club but one that had played in a ton of close games. Consider: Last year - which was a fairly typical one for the NFL - 43 percent of the regular-season games were decided by seven points or less. Well, since 2004, when Gibbs returned to the Washington sideline, 63.4 percent of the Redskins' regular-season games have been decided by that margin.

In other words, none of this is anything new to the Redskins. They've had a steady diet of down-to-the-last-possession games in recent years. What's different now is that they're winning more of them than they're losing - a lot more. After all, Gibbs' record in close games was 16-23 (17-23 if you throw in the 17-10 playoff win at Tampa Bay in '05).

Some will say these games even out over time, and perhaps they do for most teams - but not for the better teams. In Gibbs' first term as coach, the Redskins only had one season in which they finished below .500 in the Close Games Department (1984, when they were 2-3 in games decided by seven points or less).

So maybe this is an omen, an indication the Redskins are a serious contender again and not just a sixth playoff seed. They've certainly put themselves in a much better position by eking out wins over the Saints (29-24), Cardinals (24-17), Cowboys (26-24), Eagles (23-17) and Browns (14-11) - especially because four were conference games and two were in their division.

Still, Antwaan Randle El admits, "You'd love to blow somebody out and be able to relax a little in the fourth quarter. We've had chances to really put teams away, too, but we haven't finished completely."

A blowout would also enable Zorn to give Clinton Portis some down time - that is, if he can pry the ball out of No. 26's hands. Portis has carried more than 20 times in every game and projects to 373 attempts for the season, which would be a career high by 21.

Of course, if Clinton has a shot at the rushing title - he's currently leading the league by 134 yards - Zorn might need a court order to get him to sit down. (Raise your hand if you'd like to see it delivered by Sheriff Gonna Getcha.)

The best explanation for the Redskins' seemingly endless succession of cliffhangers might be the simplest. As Zorn puts it, "We're not really a dominant team, are we?"

No, they're just a team that plays pretty close to its potential most weeks, a team that doesn't panic when it falls behind, a team that manages to be competitive with just about anybody. When you play the Redskins, you'd better be prepared to play the full 60 minutes. Just ask their fans, the ones wringing their hands, mopping their brows and squirming in their seats.