CLEVELAND — Don Cousins stood in the front row of Cleveland Browns Stadium and leaned over the wall to greet his son. Throughout Kirk Cousins' football career, Don has embraced the brilliance of a shared moment anytime another dream is realized. So the pride beamed from Don's face as Kirk approached, victorious and smiling.
"We did it," Kirk said, as Don recalled. "We did it."
And they celebrated together a crucial Washington Redskins win and Kirk's moment of validation.
The fourth-round rookie quarterback replaced injured star Robert Griffin III on Sunday and, in his first career start, continued the Redskins' magical late-season run by deftly operating their base offense in a comfortable 38-21 victory over the Cleveland Browns.
"If I die tomorrow, I could say I started a game in the NFL and we won," Cousins said. "It's a good feeling."
The Redskins, with a trail of fire behind them, won their fifth straight game and surged into a three-way tie for first place in the NFC East with the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys. With two weeks remaining in the season, Washington (8-6) holds the three-team tiebreaker advantage because of a superior head-to-head winning percentage against the others.
This team that appeared buried six weeks ago is two wins from its first division title in 13 years.
"All I know is we've got to win the next two games," veteran safety Reed Doughty said of next week's trip to Philadelphia and the season finale at home against Dallas. "If we win, we're in the playoffs. That's a great place to be."
Cousins' grand performance in relief positioned them there.
He rebounded from a slow start to finish 26-of-37 passing for 329 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. His passer rating was 104.4. Knowing Griffin might return next week made it even more special.
Cousins eventually thrived in the offensive scheme the Redskins ran last season, the one in which the less-dynamic Rex Grossman threw for 3,151 yards. Cousins shredded the Browns' defense with play-action passes buoyed by misdirection behind the line of scrimmage.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan shelved the pistol formation and quarterback zone-read option runs that Griffin has thrived off of during his rookie season, and the Redskins still reached the 38-point mark for the fourth time this year.
Cleveland's linebackers were determined to stop rookie running back Alfred Morris, and that opened space for Cousins and Redskins receivers to attack.
"They made it their job to stop our run, and they did a great job," said Morris, who ran for 87 yards and two touchdowns. "We started using that against them. They were stacking the box, so we was, like, play-action."
Cousins was nervous before the game. That was clear to Don Cousins, who had seen his son start slowly enough times at Michigan State and at Holland Christian High School.
He threw an interception before he completed a pass. And he was 1 for 6 for 4 yards on Washington's first four drives, none of which netted a first down.
"It's like he gets a feel for the game and he gets stronger as the game goes on," Don Cousins said. "I think, just, he hasn't played. It took a little while for him to get his feet underneath him."
But it all changed on the first play of Washington's fifth series. Cousins faked a handoff to Morris and rolled to his right. Cleveland strong safety T.J. Ward sprinted forward on the play, leaving receiver Leonard Hankerson open deep.
Cousins zipped a pass among three defenders. Hankerson juggled the ball but caught it as he went to the ground. He got up, untouched, and ran the 5 yards into the end zone.
"It was a great read by the quarterback," said Hankerson, who caught both of Cousins' touchdowns. "He went through his progression, saw the safety comes down, and if everybody comes down, I'm over the top."
Although the touchdown pass seemed to settle Cousins, he was outwardly steady in the huddle.
"Just a positive attitude," left guard Kory Lichtensteiger said. "It shows good leadership for him and good maturity because he knew the momentum was definitely going the other way, and I think he knew that he had to be the voice in the huddle to step up and calm everybody down."
Cousins' confidence resulted from his extensive preparation. He quarterbacked the first team offense during all four practices leading up to Sunday's game. He usually works exclusively with the scout team.
On Sunday morning, about 12 hours after Cousins learned he would start in Griffin's place, he expressed satisfaction to his father.
"He said, you know, Dad, I have done all the preparing I can do," Don Cousins recalled. "There's nothing more I can. I've watched the film. I've worked on the plays. There's just no more hours in the day to do anything more. It has got to be good enough."
Boy, was it good enough. His 329 yards were more than Griffin has thrown for in any game during his storied rookie season.
Afterward, Kirk Cousins finished his last television interview outside the Redskins locker room and set out to find his family and friends. He estimated his contingent included 30 relatives of all ages, high school friends and former college teammates.
They broke into applause when Kirk arrived.
Before Kirk greeted his father, he stopped to pose for a few pictures. Cousins wrapped his arm around defensive lineman Doug Worthington's girlfriend's 6-year-old son, Isaiah. Isaiah wore a No. 10 jersey that read "Griffin III" across the back.
Nearby, Don Cousins smiled.
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