- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Washington Redskins are poised to return to the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, but whether Mark Brunell will be their quarterback in January remains in doubt.

Brunell sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee during the third quarter of the Redskins’ 35-20 victory over the New York Giants on Saturday. He rested at home yesterday and will undergo an MRI today, six days before the Redskins (9-6) face the Eagles (6-9) in Philadelphia with the chance to clinch a wild-card berth.

The Redskins still could win the NFC East — it would be the club’s first division title since 1999 — if they beat the Eagles and the Raiders (4-11) upset the New York Giants (10-5) in Oakland on Saturday night.

The Redskins also still could miss the playoffs if they lose to the Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys beat the St. Louis Rams or the Minnesota Vikings win their final two games against the Baltimore Ravens and the Chicago Bears.

Backup quarterback Patrick Ramsey played well in relief against the Giants on Saturday and performed decently in two starts last year against the then-formidable Eagles. The Eagles won the NFC last season but have been badly hurt by injuries this year. They have lost seven of their past nine games, including a 27-21 defeat to the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday.

Coach Joe Gibbs benched Brunell in favor of Ramsey before a game against the Eagles in November of last season. Brunell enjoyed an unexpected renaissance as a starter in the first half of this season. However, the 35-year-old hasn’t passed for even 200 yards in the past six games.

The Redskins probably will face the Buccaneers in Tampa, Fla., if they beat the Eagles on Sunday in a playoff-clinching fifth straight victory. The Bucs (10-5) only need to beat the reeling New Orleans Saints (3-12) at home to win the NFC South.

The Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and the Giants likely would play host to the featured, late-afternoon television games on wild-card weekend. That likely would leave a rematch between the Bucs and the Redskins as the early game Jan. 7 or Jan. 8.

Tampa hasn’t been a welcoming spot for the Redskins.

The Redskins began a three-game tailspin in November with a controversial and agonizing loss to the Bucs in the final minute, a 36-35 defeat that almost knocked them out of the NFC playoff race.

Tampa also is where the Redskins’ last playoff run ended with a controversial and agonizing loss in January 2000, a 14-13 defeat in the division round of the postseason. And it’s where, 16 years earlier, Gibbs suffered what is easily the worst playoff loss of his Hall of Fame career, a 38-9 trampling by the Los Angeles Raiders in Super Bowl XVIII.

But the Redskins first must take care of business in Philadelphia — a city in which they are 2-11 in the past 13 seasons — before they can get back to Tampa.

The Redskins turned around this season thanks largely to their renewed emphasis on running the ball and the defense’s new-found penchant for big plays.

As they did in their glory days under Gibbs from 1981 to 1992, the Redskins are playing smashmouth football. They averaged 173 yards on 37 carries in consecutive wins over the Rams, Cardinals, Cowboys and Giants.

Running back Clinton Portis, who rushed for more than 103 yards just twice in the first 11 games, has averaged 115 yards on 25 carries since, giving him a Redskins-record eight 100-yard days this season. Portis also has gained at least 1,300 yards in each of his first four seasons in the league, a feat equaled by only Hall of Famers Earl Campbell and Barry Sanders.

“Clinton runs hard,” H-back Chris Cooley said. “When he runs for 100 yards, we win games.”

Indeed, the Redskins are 11-2 when Portis hits the century mark, 4-14 when he doesn’t during his two seasons in Washington.

Meanwhile, the defense, which forced just 11 turnovers and recorded 18 sacks in the first 11 games, has forced 11 turnovers and recorded 13 sacks in the last four weeks. Middle linebacker Lemar Marshall picked off a pass by Eli Manning on Saturday, and right end Phillip Daniels took down the New York quarterback for an 11-yard loss.

“We’re trying to dictate to the offense instead of the offense dictating to us,” Marshall said.

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