CLEVELAND — At a certain point, a winning streak becomes a form of group hysteria, almost — an altered state. There's no understanding it, really. It just is.
"It's something you can feel, but it's hard to explain," Barry Cofield said after the Washington Redskins' 38-21 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, their fifth straight.
You could "feel" this "something" when rookie Kirk Cousins, in his first NFL start, threw a pass through "a small window," as Mike Shanahan put it, and Leonard Hankerson caught it for a 54-yard touchdown that tied the game at 7. Cousins rolled out on the play and "had a lot of options," he said. "I could have run [for a good gain]. But I felt like there was a lot of space over the top with no safety there. I counted on Hank to make me right, and he did."
You could "feel" this "something" when Santana Moss fumbled at the Cleveland 19 in the late going, and Pierre Garcon recovered the bouncing ball 11 yards downfield (two weeks after Josh Morgan had turned a Robert Griffin III fumble into a TD against the New York Giants). On the next snap, Alfred Morris went crashing up the middle for the Redskins' final score.
"I was just doing what our coach tells us to do: 'Keep playing through the whistle, block [downfield] for your guys,'" Garcon said.
You could even "feel" this "something" when the secondary snoozed off in the fourth quarter and gave up a 69-yard touchdown pass to the Browns' Travis Benjamin. Why? Because when the secondary did likewise in the fourth quarter at the Meadowlands in Week 7, before The Streak started, it cost the Redskins the game. This time it just reduced their lead from 31-14 to 31-21 — and left them a mere Forward Fumble from victory.
Don't spend too much time trying to comprehend all this. Some things are unknowable. Suffice it to say a Redskins team that was 3-6 and searching for answers is 8-6 and has the upper hand in the NFC East — thanks to the Atlanta Falcons' 34-0 flogging of the Giants (also 8-6, but on the wrong side of the tiebreakers). Two more wins, over the Eagles in Philadelphia and the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field, and Washington takes the division.
Stranger still, the Redskins are doing it in a way no NFL club has ever done it. "They don't expect rookie quarterbacks to win in this league," Garcon said, "but we're doing it." They did it for 13 games with first-round-pick Robert Griffin III, who sat out the Cleveland game — restlessly — with a sprained right knee; and they did it Sunday with fourth-round-pick Cousins, who didn't know for sure he'd be starting until the quarterbacks meeting the night before.
Before friends and family, the Redskins' "other" first-year QB, pride of Holland, Mich., carved up the Cleveland defense for 329 passing yards, two touchdowns, a .703 completion percentage and a 104.4 rating. (RG3's rating for the season: a league-leading 104.2.) He threw an early interception that helped the Browns jump on top 7-0, but after that he and his mates got it going and there wasn't much the home team (5-9) could do to stop them.
"It shows you what the guy's all about," Shanahan said. "You've got to keep your composure [after a pick]. You've got to fight through. He's got a lot of confidence. You can see that in practice."
Clearly, Cousins' performance in the preseason — and his ability to produce coming off the bench against Atlanta and Baltimore — convinced the coach that he could handle a pressure situation like this. Let's face it, not every team has a Plan B at quarterback, a guy who can keep the wins coming while the No. 1 heals. Griffin was physically capable of playing Sunday, no doubt, but, according to Shanahan, it wasn't medically advisable for him to do so, not seven days removed from a sprained knee. As long as Cousins is around, there should never be any need to rush RG3 back into action, to take any risks with him whatsoever. You can't put a price on that, especially with a commodity as valuable as Robert.
"He's been a huge part of our success this year," Moss said. "But I was glad we got a chance to show what we can do without him, with our backs to the wall."
Obviously, the offense was different with the less-nimble Cousins at the controls. You didn't, generally speaking, see the option stuff, the pitch plays, the scrambling for drive-saving first downs — Griffin's specialties. But there's more than one way to play quarterback in this league. And besides, Kirk showed some pretty good mobility on occasion, one time running for 17 yards.
"I think as much as Robert wants to show people he can be a pocket passer — which he can — I want to show people that I can move around a little bit," Cousins said.
As starting debuts go, it didn't rank far below RG3's coming-out party in New Orleans earlier this season (320 passing yards, 2 touchdowns, 139.9 rating). Unbelievable. But instead of trying to grasp this phenomenon — "something you can feel" but not "explain," in the words of Barry Cofield, who went through it with the 2007 Giants — why not just sit back and enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts? The Redskins have left the Real World and are off in another dimension. Ain't winning grand?
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