The Arizona Cardinals are 4-8. They have the NFL’s worst rushing offense. They allow more points than all but four teams. They should be an easy mark even for the inconsistent Washington Redskins.
But the Redskins have been down this road in Week 11. They led a 3-6 Oakland team by 10 points at halftime at home and lost, severely hurting their playoff hopes.
So the Redskins (6-6) are intent on avoiding a similar letdown today at Arizona, knowing a loss would make their final three games against NFC East rivals Dallas, the New York Giants and Philadelphia as irrelevant as their last four Decembers.
“As we sit right now at 6-6, we look back and say, ‘If we had only done this against Tampa Bay or had only done that against Oakland,’” offensive tackle Jon Jansen said of those narrow defeats. “We have an opportunity in front of us. We don’t want to be coming in here [on] Monday and saying, ‘If only we had done this against Arizona.’”
That message of caution has been absorbed by the younger Redskins, who might have been inclined to believe that last week’s impressive 24-9 road victory over the more imposing St. Louis Rams would make the game against the ever-hapless Cardinals a near-sure thing.
“People probably look at this game as, ‘Oh, they should beat these guys,’” rookie cornerback Carlos Rogers said. “The teams that you ‘should’ beat are the teams that come back and win games against you. We’re not looking ahead to next week’s Cowboys game. If we get knocked out by [Arizona], our chances of going to the playoffs are slim.”
Indeed, Washington already trails Dallas, Minnesota and Atlanta by a game and Tampa Bay by two in the battle for the NFC’s two wild card berths. A loss today could be fatal despite the Redskins’ current tiebreaking advantages over the Cowboys, Vikings and Falcons.
While the Cardinals are just 2-8 against everyone except weak sister San Francisco, they won in St. Louis by 10 points three weeks ago before giving likely AFC wild card Jacksonville a scare.
Young, powerful receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin have meshed nicely with accurate veteran quarterback Kurt Warner to give Arizona the NFL’s top passing attack. Fitzgerald and Boldin have 12 touchdowns and the most catches (150) and yards (2,120) of any duo. Warner, a two-time MVP with the Rams, passed for more than 300 yards in four of the past five games. His five such games in 2005 lead the league.
“With Kurt, you just can’t let him sit back there and sling the ball,” Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs said. “You have to put pressure on him and show him different looks. You have to take away his comfort zone and get him moving his feet. [Fitzgerald] will go up over DBs and make tough catches. After the catch, Anquan’s probably one of the most dangerous guys in the league. He breaks tackles.”
The Redskins held the swift Rams to just 9 yards after the catch, the fewest during 28 games in assistant head coach Gregg Williams’ defense, while not allowing a 20-yard play for the first time. And with Arizona’s ground game even less of a threat than that of St. Louis, Washington will reverse its usual stop-the-run first strategy.
“It’s almost opposite thinking,” linebacker Marcus Washington said. “You have to play pass and react to the run.”
Run is what Washington’s offense plans to do today after pounding St. Louis for 257 yards last week, its most on the ground since a 259-yard day in the 1995 opener against Arizona. Clinton Portis teamed with Rock Cartwright to give the Redskins their first pair of 100-yard backs in a game in nearly three years.
“Our mindset is to run the ball,” guard Randy Thomas said.
Coach Joe Gibbs maintained that he wants a balanced offense, but since he returned to Washington last season, he’s 10-1 when his team hands off more than it drops back, 2-15 when the opposite occurs. The Cardinals are actually sturdier against the run (18th) than the pass (25th), but with Santana Moss, the Redskins’ only proven receiver, a little gimpy with a strained hamstring, Washington surely will try to follow Thomas’ lead.
“We have to go out and take advantage of them while they don’t have everything together,” Portis said of an Arizona defense that was run over for an average of 168 yards in four of its last six games.
If the Redskins have everything together today, they’ll have everything to play for again next Sunday.