Two months ago Friday, Washington was 4-1. The Redskins weren’t just planning on printing playoff tickets, they were wondering in how many rounds they would have homefield advantage.
Now the Redskins have split their past eight games and are just hoping to make the playoffs for the first time since 1992. At 7-5, Washington would be tied for fourth in the AFC East and no better than third in the AFC Central or NFC Central.
While their 7-5 record amazingly still is good enough to lead the NFC Least, don’t count on the Redskins holding on to win their first division crown since the 1991 Super Bowl season or even ending their playoff drought.
The first problem is that Dallas, Arizona and the New York Giants are all just a game behind at 6-6 with four games to play, so Washington has almost no margin of error, especially since it doesn’t play the Cowboys or Giants again.
The defending champion Cowboys have two huge advantages over the Redskins. Dallas took the season series so it wins the tiebreaker. And while Washington’s remaining opponents are a combined 27-21, Dallas’ final four foes are a collective 15-34. Philadelphia, the Giants and the New York Jets a combined 5-13 on the road all visit Texas Stadium, while the Cowboys only travel to NFC cellar-dweller New Orleans.
The Cardinals come to FedEx Field on Sunday with quarterback Jake Plummer who missed almost the entire second half of the Redskins’ 24-10 victory at Arizona two months ago finally healthy again. And Arizona, which made the playoffs for the first time in 17 years last season by winning its final three games, has won four in a row.
The Cardinals’ remaining opponents are 25-23, slightly worse than Washington’s, but they have a nearly unwinnable finale. Arizona finishes Jan. 2 at Green Bay, where the Packers are 16-0 in December and January dating back to 1993.
Other than the Packers, the Giants have been the NFC’s best December team (14-5) since 1993, but New York’s chances of winning are the dimmest of the four contenders. New York’s last four foes are a collective 31-17, easily the toughest schedule of any of the NFC playoff hopefuls. New York travels to AFC contender Buffalo, NFC West champion St. Louis and Dallas and plays host to Minnesota.
If the Redskins beat the Cardinals on Sunday, they will have the tiebreaker over Arizona and the Giants by virtue of sweeping the season series, but if Arizona wins, the Cardinals would have the advantage thanks to a better division record (6-2 vs. 4-4).
So what happens if the Redskins beat the Cardinals but finish behind the Cowboys by losing one of their final three games (at AFC East leader Indianapolis, at San Francisco and at home against AFC contender Miami) while Dallas runs the table?
That’s where things become even more complicated because Washington would be in the wild-card pool with Arizona, New York and three of the four NFC Central contenders (Detroit, Tampa Bay, Minnesota and Green Bay) that don’t win that division. There will be six teams going for three wild-card spots.
We have seen how Washington stacks up against Arizona and New York, but what about the Central teams?
The Lions (8-4) win the tiebreaker by virtue of last Sunday’s 33-17 victory over the Redskins. Other than Dallas, Detroit also has the easiest schedule (its opponents are 24-25).
The Buccaneers (8-4) have won five straight and lead the Redskins by a game, but they trail Washington slightly within the NFC (5-4 to 6-4). Tampa Bay’s final foes are a collective 26-23, and the toughest (Detroit and Green Bay) visit Florida. But the Bucs wind up Jan. 2 at Chicago. Historically, Tampa Bay is 1-16 in subfreezing weather.
The Vikings (7-5) had their five-game winning streak broken Monday night at Tampa Bay. They’re tied with the Redskins overall and in the NFC and their strength of schedule (28-20) is nearly identical. Their final four foes are all between 6-6 and 8-4, while Washington has a nearly-impossible task at the 10-2 Colts but a near-gimme at the 3-9 49ers. And while Dennis Green has coached Minnesota into the playoffs in each of his seven seasons, Washington is 0-5 under Norv Turner.
The Packers (7-5) still have to visit Minnesota and Tampa Bay, although they figure to have little trouble with Carolina or Arizona on Wisconsin’s frozen tundra. Green Bay’s 5-3 NFC record is slightly ahead of Washington’s, and its schedule is slightly weaker (26-22). While coach Ray Rhodes is new in town, the Packers have the confidence that comes with having made the playoffs six straight seasons.
If the Redskins follow form by beating the Cardinals and 49ers and losing to the Colts, their playoff hopes and the jobs of Turner and his assistants will come down to the finale against the Dolphins and Turner’s old Cowboys boss, Jimmy Johnson.