- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

This isn’t two seasons ago when Dallas visited in December. This isn’t last season when the Washington Redskins traveled to Texas Stadium in December.

It’s still the Cowboys and Redskins and it’s December again, but there’s been a different feeling permeating through Redskin Park this week, leading up to today’s 4:15 p.m. kickoff.

The longtime NFC East rivals’ 92nd meeting is their most important in years, both teams needing to win to strengthen their playoff chances.

“It’s the reason you’re a football player — you want to be in the big games,” Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said. “For a lot of them, they haven’t been in any of these.”

The last two weeks were must-wins for the Redskins. But facing Dallas … at home … on national television … at a time of the year when the Redskins are generally looking toward their next roster overhaul. Well, this is different.

“By this time of the year, we’re usually out of it,” defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. “This makes it better and more fun. I’m looking forward to the challenge because the ante-up is that much bigger. It’s do or die. We can’t lose another game.”

No they can’t. The Redskins (7-6) have won two straight games and need to win their final three to have a shot at their first playoff berth since 1999. They’ll try to sweep the Cowboys for the first time since 1995 with cornerbacks Shawn Springs and Walt Harris nursing injuries and defensive tackle Joe Salave’a returning from a foot ailment. Cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Matt Bowen are questionable and linebacker LaVar Arrington’s status is up in the air.

The Cowboys (8-5), who had only one player on their injury report this week, need to win to keep pace with the other 8- and 9-win teams: Chicago, Minnesota, Carolina and Atlanta.

The New York Giants’ win over Kansas City yesterday made them 10-4 and further strengthened their NFC East title hopes. Dallas trails the Giants by 1 games; the Redskins trail by 2 games. Tampa Bay is 9-5 after losing at New England, but even if the Redskins win today, they’ll still need two more wins — and some help — to qualify for the playoffs.

The last time the Cowboys and Redskins met in December with winning records was 1996 and the Cowboys, already assured of a playoff spot, played reserves throughout the 37-10 Redskins win.

A veteran of the Indianapolis-New England duels when he was an Indianapolis linebacker, Marcus Washington said: “It’s definitely like that one because for the longest time, the Patriots dominated that rivalry until the Colts turned it around this year. Hopefully, we’ve started to do the same thing.”

Entering this season, the Cowboys had won 14 of the teams’ last 15 meetings. Way back in Week 2, it looked like it was going to be more of the same — Dallas was leading a Monday night snoozer 13-0 following Drew Bledsoe’s 70-yard third-quarter touchdown pass to Terry Glenn.

But two lightning strikes by the Redskins’ up-to-that-point impotent offense — Mark Brunell touchdown passes of 39 and 70 yards to Santana Moss — in the final four minutes gave the Redskins a 14-13 victory.

Dallas has lost only once at FedEx Field, in Darrell Green’s final game as a Redskin in 2002. The Redskins will be going for only their fourth season sweep of the Cowboys.

But as defensive end Phillip Daniels correctly summarized earlier this week, “Win this game or we’re out of the playoffs. That’s more important than the rivalry.”

What’s important for the Redskins today is mixing Clinton Portis’ recent success with a return to the way they beat Dallas the first time, via the big strike.

Portis has 136 and 105 yards rushing in the last two games and the Redskins are 4-2 when he exceeds 100 yards. His three busiest days have been in the last three games and he could exceed 30 carries today for the first time this season.

“It’s the stretch run and knowing what we went through last year, the offensive line is determined to get me over the 100-yard mark,” Portis said.

The passing game has been ineffective for the past four games. Brunell has three interceptions and two touchdowns during the stretch. More worrisome: Moss has one touchdown and no 100-yard performances in the last seven games.

Aside from the Bledsoe flea-flicker touchdown, Dallas’ offense was kept in check by the Redskins. The Cowboys rushed for only 90 yards.

Three months later, Bledsoe has developed downfield chemistry with Glenn (six touchdowns) and has also found Keyshawn Johnson for six scores. Bledsoe’s passer rating of 89.5 this season is his career high. Complementing the passing game are young running backs Julius Jones and Marion Barber.

The Redskins only healthy corner is Ade Jimoh. Springs and Harris are expected to play despite groin and ankle injuries, respectively. Getting those less-than-healthy players off the field will be key for the Redskins. Dallas leads the league in time of possession.

“Bill [Parcells] does a tremendous job calling a game, controlling the tempo of a game and time of possession and making sure his defense is rested,” Redskins assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said.

An 18-year NFL head coach, Parcells said this week he enjoys the pressure-packed late-season games. In his 14th season, Gibbs — who will be joined by Parcells in the Hall of Fame sooner or later — will no doubt be in agony for much of the game. Brunell, involved in his first playoff push since 1999, sides with Gibbs when it comes to finding games like today’s exciting.

“I don’t know that there’s any reason to not enjoy this,” Brunell said. “This is why we’re here, to have this kind of competition, with so much on the line. You play to have these kinds of opportunities late in the year. We may need some help but all we can control is what happens Sunday.”

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