Mike Shanahan has hoisted the Lombardi Trophy twice as a head coach. He has been to the top of the NFL mountain. He also has been fired. And he has experienced just about every type of high and low between those extremes.
He usually is stoic, at least when the cameras are rolling and the microphones are on. Coaches surviving and succeeding in the league require an even keel, he believes. So for a coach already with four AFC West division titles on his resume, the week preceding the Washington Redskins' winner-take-all game against the Dallas Cowboys at home Sunday night could be fairly routine.
It isn't, though. There's something special about this Redskins team that Shanahan stripped down and built up since taking over three years ago. With one of their main goals — an NFC East title — finally within reach, even the coach is feeling some extra juice.
"There's no question," Shanahan said. "You remember this game for the rest of your life. You want to take advantage of these opportunities. A lot of people don't get them. So when do you get them, you want to just stress the players on how important their preparation is to doing little things the right way because you want to take advantage of this opportunity when it's presented."
Players shared that excitement and anticipation Sunday just minutes after their 27-20 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. By Christmas Eve, their path to the postseason became clear.
Washington would win its first division championship in 13 years by beating or tying Dallas. If the Redskins lose, they still could qualify for the playoffs as the second and final wild-card team if Minnesota loses at home to Green Bay and Chicago loses at Detroit earlier Sunday.
So the Redskins will know by the time their game kicks off at 8:20 whether they must win to make the playoffs.
It's a tantalizing scenario: Redskins-Cowboys at FedEx Field in what amounts to a division championship game in prime time.
"Pandemonium at FedEx Field, man," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. "The way you like it. Definitely, it's going to be a playoff atmosphere there. And we encourage the fans to get on out there early."
The Redskins should be equipped to meet the supercharged emotion of the occasion with aplomb. After all, they have been playing must-win games since their six-game winning streak began Nov. 18.
They have won all types of contests: an offensive explosion at Dallas on Thanksgiving; a low-scoring comeback win over New York; an overtime thriller against Baltimore.
Their postseason hopes hinged on each one, just as they probably will Sunday night.
"I think sometimes it's hard to turn it on," nose tackle Barry Cofield said. "Being used to that feeling, that win-or-go-home feeling, I think is a good thing."
Players have said their lack of any margin for error over the last six weeks has honed their focus. It helped a remarkable turnaround from a 3-6 record.
But for all the great strides the Redskins have made since they returned from their bye, there's still a decent chance they'll miss the postseason and fail to achieve their stated goal of a division title. That's proof of how deep their hole was.
The Redskins recognize the possibility of such disappointment and remain concentrated on avoiding it and continuing this magical run.
"That's why I think you saw a locker room that was pretty under control," Shanahan said, referring to the postgame atmosphere in Philadelphia. "They know we haven't reached our goals yet, but we're doing the things you need to do to get there."
They're so close, but the final hurdle is great. The Redskins beat Dallas 38-31 on Thanksgiving after the Cowboys scored 28 points in the second half. Starting running back DeMarco Murray and nose tackle Jay Ratliff did not play in that game because of injuries. Murray is expected to play in Sunday's rematch; Ratliff's status is undetermined.
And there's the matter of containing Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant. He had 145 yards and two touchdowns against Washington on Thanksgiving, and he had 224 yards and two scores against New Orleans on Sunday.
"They have an excellent offensive football team," Shanahan said. "When you take a look at a team that throws for that many yards, you've got to take your hat off to them and the way they came back [against us]."
And so players will return to work Wednesday with knowledge and experience from their first game against Dallas, their adverse first half of the season and the momentum from this special run, and channel it all toward being crowned division champions.
"This is what we've been working for," linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. "We knew if we took care of our business, we could put ourselves in good position to not only make the playoffs but win the East. This is what we want, and we're excited for next week."
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