Today decides the rest of the Washington Redskins’ season.
Beating the Philadelphia Eagles (6-3) gives the Redskins (4-5) a real chance to make the playoffs, even win the NFC East. A loss means the final wild card is their only probable chance with six games remaining.
The four-game winning streak that lifted the Redskins from national joke to playoff contender has been compiled against mediocre teams that often gave away the game. The Redskins played well in spurts, but the victories merely elevated them to mediocre. But the Eagles will prove whether the Redskins are contenders or pretenders.
This is the first serious Super Bowl contender the Redskins have met since losing 37-0 to the Green Bay Packers Sept. 24. Beating the surging Eagles would legitimize the Redskins and erase the stain of an 0-5 start.
“We’re still in the hole. We’re not above .500. We’re not leading the division,” said defensive end Kenard Lang. “We have to press on game by game.”
In recent seasons, the Redskins-Eagles rivalry has become more intense than Washington’s one with the Dallas Cowboys. Washington is a surprising 71/2-point underdog in a series where only one of the last 19 games was decided by more than a touchdown. The past three games were three-pointers.
“The Philly-Redskins rivalry is a fight literally,” Washington receiver Michael Westbrook said. “Every down is like the hardest down. Nobody knows about that. There’s a lot of new guys [on the team that] don’t know it, but it gets worse every year.”
Veterans Stadium is the meanest NFL venue east of Oakland. Even Eagles players wear their helmets in the tunnel for protection from rowdy fans who forced a jail and judge to be installed in the stadium basement. New Yorkers may throw snowballs, but Philadelphians hurl stinging personalized insults. They even boo Santa Claus.
“They’re going to try to pick a fight with you,” Lang said. “They’re cussing you out, talking about your mother. I enjoy it. When you walk off the field, they look at you and you smile because you know you got the best of them.”
Said tight end Stephen Alexander: “Every place you go, they have fans yelling, but Philly is like the whole stadium is rude and obnoxious. You have to shut them up early. Hopefully, we won’t have any fighting on the sideline.”
Redskins receiver Albert Connell and then-assistant coach Terry Robiskie nearly came to blows on the sideline last year during the Redskins’ 17-14 victory. Strange things happen at the Vet.
Meanwhile, a defense that has gained redemption since three opening blowouts will be challenged by the Eagles’ versatility. Quarterback Donovan McNabb can win games with his feet and arm, Running back Duce Staley is a 100-yard threat and former Redskins receiver James Thrash has seven touchdowns.
Mostly, the Redskins respect Staley but fear McNabb. Their likely eight-man fronts probably will have linebacker LaVar Arrington concentrating on McNabb.
“He’ll throw a little playground move on you and you’ll end up on ESPN,” Lang said. “You can’t let him get going and make plays from nowhere.”
Said defensive end Bruce Smith: “I’m more concerned about his legs than his arm, and that’s not taking anything away from him throwing the ball, but he seems to make bigger plays when he’s running around.”
Defensively, the Eagles have 30 sacks and forced 20 turnovers. Make a mistake and they’ll pounce for seven points.
“They create a lot of havoc and you have to be very careful with the ball, because if they take the ball away they seem to feed on that,” Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer said.