- - Sunday, October 2, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION

LANDOVER — Victory Mondays in the NFL are not accompanied by ifs, ands or buts. Those hypothetical conjunctions are the utterances of losers, who are left talking about what might have been instead of what actually happened.

But over the course of four quarters, when momentum swings and outcomes hang in the balance, there are imperceptible differences between winning football and plays that reek of defeat. One moment, the home team is cruising the field like a riding mower, putting its finishing touches in the end zone for a change. The next moment, it appears that the visitors won’t be stopped unless fans leave their seats to join the effort.

The final score read Washington 31, Cleveland 20, and that’s really all that matters. The Skins evened their record at the quarter-pole and avoided a dreaded 0-3 start at FedEx Field. As defensive end Ricky Jean Francois said, now the players can go home and enjoy the highlights and walk around team headquarters without having to avert their eyes.

But the Browns exposed some legitimate concerns, too, primarily the gashing they inflicted in gaining 163 yards on the ground. A non-rookie quarterback presumably would take advantage of that rushing attack better than Cody Kessler did. Cleveland also managed to slow down Washington’s offense when it seemed a blowout might be in store.

All in all, the Skins played mind games on the announced crowd of 76,249 fans.

A worldbeater in the first quarter, dominating the clock (11:34 in time of possession) and the scoreboard (14-0), Washington resembled an also-ran late in the third quarter, trailing the winless Browns by a field goal and on the verge of falling behind by 10 points.

As Cleveland drove into the red zone, 74 seconds before the final quarter began, the idea that both teams would depart with a 1-3 record was all too real. Washington was stuck on 17 and Cleveland had scored on four consecutive possessions. The Browns were exhibiting a killer instinct while the opponent was being rolled (over) into a furry ball of softness.

“I think we just found our composure,” Cleveland cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun said of the middle quarters’ sea change. “We kind of settled in, settled down a little bit and we just got ready to play good football.”

But just as fans were openly wondering about the team Scot McCloughan built for Jay Gruden to coach, Washington demonstrated an area of strength that bears watching — it forced a turnover. Cleveland decided to give Malcolm Johnson his sole carry of the afternoon and linebacker Will Compton promptly stripped him, the fumble recovered by cornerback Quinton Dunbar.

Turns out that no NFL team has forced more fumbles (30) or recovered more fumbles (20) since the beginning of last season. Who knew? The Skins took advantage with a 10-play, 91-yard drive – featuring heavy doses of Matt Jones —to take the lead for good on Kirk Cousins’ short pass to Chris Thompson.

Washington’s penchant for takeaways resurfaced on the Browns’ next two drives, which ended when Compton recovered a fumble forced by Ziggy Hood, and then on an interception by Josh Norman. “One thing (defensive coordinator Joe Barry) over-emphasized was we have to make turnovers, we have to make turnovers,” Francois said.

“We know it’s easier to get off the field with a turnover,” Washington safety Will Blackmon said. “We love to get the ball and give our offense a chance.”

The offense didn’t need much help early when it assumed the role of a juggernaut. The ball hit the ground just twice on the first two possessions — once on a 50-yard pass interference penalty drawn by DeSean Jackson — as Kirk Cousins directed drives of 75 and 80 yards.

Matt Jones picked up where he left off last week, averaging a healthy 5.3 yards per carry against Cleveland for a season-high 117 yards. Just as he did against the Giants, he pounded the opposition late in the game, rushing for 79 yards and the decisive touchdown in the fourth quarter.

“A big back like that runs better when the defense gets worn down and he gets in the flow of the game,” Gruden said.

If only we could determine his team’s flow with any degree of certainty.

Yes, they’ve won two in row, boast plenty of targets for Cousins and play takeaway as well as anyone. But they’ve also yield prodigious rushing amounts and stalled when they should pounce. Depending on which segment of which game you examine, you don’t know what to believe aside from the fact they’re resilient.

Now comes the hard part, the season’s second quarter, with road trips to Baltimore, Detroit and London (against Cincinnati), with a home game against the resurgent Eagles.

That would be a great time for the real Skins to show up, show their true identity and stop messing with our heads.

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