- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 20, 2015

LANDOVER — Shortly after the Washington Redskins beat the Buffalo Bills, 35-25, at FedEx Field, a group of players huddled around a television in the locker room. They erupted with excitement at the sight of the Carolina Panthers beating the New York Giants — a result that helped clear the crowded path to the top of the NFC East.

The thing is, the Redskins‘ jubilance was not predicated on the Giants’ failure. It was rooted in what they had accomplished just moments earlier. The Redskins were most proud that they did not need any help from the Panthers — not with the way they played on Sunday.

Washington rolled to a 28-3 lead in the third quarter after quarterback Kirk Cousins connected with wide receiver DeSean Jackson on a 77-yard touchdown pass. The Redskins dominated the first half, scoring 21 consecutive points before the Bills tacked on a field goal.

When the Bills came knocking with a pair of touchdowns to cut the deficit to 28-17 in the third quarter, Cousins guided the Redskins‘ offense, just like he had most of the day, on a gritty 13-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a touchdown pass to wide receiver Pierre Garcon.

Regardless of the outcome of the Philadelphia Eagles’ game against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday night, the Redskins (7-7) put themselves in position to clinch the NFC East with a win in Philadelphia next Saturday night.

“That’s all you can worry about, is what you can control,” said veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall. “I think we’re in a good position because we don’t have to sit here watching the TV rooting for somebody else to win or lose. As long as we go out and take care of business, the ball is in our court. Ultimately, that’s what you want. That’s the position we’re in.”

A week after the Redskins won their first road game of the season against the Chicago Bears, they were able to check another box: They won consecutive games. It was their sixth win at home — their most since 2005. The Redskins also matched their win total from the last two seasons combined.

There have been various moments throughout the year when the Redskins have shown improvement, only to follow it with disappointment, like Washington’s 19-16 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on “Monday Night Football” three weeks ago.

After Sunday’s win, that loss to Dallas feels like it was three months ago, but how did it get to this point?

There was an air of confidence in the Redskins‘ locker room after beating the Bills, mostly because for the first time, the possibility of returning to the playoffs since 2012 seemed tangible.

There was excitement in that reality, but it was measured. That approach has played a big part in the Redskins‘ success as they close in on a playoff berth. Left tackle Trent Williams, who has lived through the highs of the 2012 playoff run and the dog days of 2013 and 2014, has been paramount in helping the team narrow its focus each week.

“We went out there and played our butts off,” Williams said. “I think everybody is starting to realize this is an extremely important time. Guys are starting to bring it every day. We’re on each other. We’re our own worst critics and it’s starting to show, but this win means nothing without next week.”

Williams was asked if this season is starting to feel like 2012. He quickly shrugged off that notion, stating this one feels different. That season, Williams explained, felt like lightning in a bottle when the Redskins won seven consecutive games to end the regular season, led by then-rookie quarterback and first-round pick Robert Griffin III.

“I think 2012, Robert just took everybody by storm,” Williams said. “I mean now, we have guys who had to step up. Guys who probably, at the beginning of the season, weren’t even sure they were going to be on the team. Now they’re playing in pivotal roles in the playoff run. That’s the difference that I see.”

The other difference is the unique blend of leadership in the locker room. There are holdovers, players such as Williams and Hall, who are established leaders. Then there are the players first-year general manager Scot McCloughan brought in during the offseason — guys with playoff experience such as nose tackle Terrance Knighton, defensive end Ricky Jean Francois and free safety Dashon Goldson.

“Those guys, to me, I think it’s tough for guys to come to a locker room their first year and establish themselves as a leader, but all of those guys have done that,” Williams said. “All three of them are big voices and we’re definitely reaping the benefits of signing those guys.”

It has been a winding road to this point, from Cousins progressing as the leader of the offense to unlikely candidates filling roles on defense, but that resiliency was all the reason Sunday’s win was that much sweeter.

The Redskins accomplished what they needed to and did so on their own merit. Now, the NFC East is theirs to take.

“This is what you live for — playing in big games on Saturday, the day after Christmas,” Jean Francois said. “The only Christmas present that we really want is to beat Philly.”

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