- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 23, 2005

Joe Gibbs has three Super Bowl rings and a bust in the Hall of Fame, but the 64-year-old coach always sees himself and his Washington Redskins as the underdogs.

So Washington’s status as a 13-point favorite over lowly San Francisco today in Landover makes Gibbs cringe. He doesn’t want to consider that the Redskins (3-2) are the only team with an offense and a defense both ranked in the top 10 while the 49ers (1-4) have the NFL’s worst defense and the NFC’s worst offense.

Please don’t tell Gibbs that today he can become just the 14th coach with 150 victories, 149 more than his San Francisco rookie counterpart, Mike Nolan, has accumulated.

Gibbs doesn’t want to hear that the 49ers have been outscored 62-0 in the fourth quarter and 73-17 on the road or that their rookie quarterback, Alex Smith, was a turnover machine in his only previous start two weeks ago against Indianapolis.

And don’t remind Gibbs that his offense, particularly quarterback Mark Brunell and receiver Santana Moss, is on a roll. Or that his team has won three straight at home and is 7-1 against conference foes outside of the NFC East during his current tenure.

No, to Gibbs this is a San Francisco team that “worked over” a respectable St. Louis outfit leading 28-9 before hanging on to win 28-25 and gave NFC East leader Dallas fits leading 21-6 before losing 34-31. The 49ers have playmakers on defense in end Bryant Young and linebacker Julian Peterson and on offense in receiver Brandon Lloyd and running back Kevan Barlow. And that rookie passer was merely the first player taken in April’s NFL Draft.

“They scored 31 points on Dallas,” Gibbs moaned. “They sacked [the Rams] seven times. … They knocked them from one end of that field to the other. I look at it as we’re getting ready to play someone who has had a week off and is rested.”

While Gibbs knows the Redskins could be 5-0 if they had been able to tackle Denver running back Tatum Bell and if Rock Cartwright’s fumble at the Kansas City 25-yard line hadn’t turned into an 80-yard Chiefs touchdown, the coach is also all too aware that Washington could easily be 0-5, too, having edged Chicago, Dallas and Seattle by the less-than-grand total of six points.

“This is a critical game for us,” Gibbs said. “This will be down to the last play in all likelihood. Everybody up here can beat everybody else.”

Maybe in the muddy and windy conditions that are likely today and if the Redskins lose three fumbles as they did in Kansas City, “If we play like we did last week, we’ll lose,” Brunell said.

Ultimately what’s driving Gibbs and his hand-picked quarterback this week is fear of losing. If Washington somehow finds a way to lose to sad-sack San Francisco (see Miami over Denver or New Orleans over Carolina), it will be its third straight defeat.

Equally deflating would be the fact that four of the Redskins’ next five games are against winning teams: the New York Giants, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and San Diego. In an NFC playoff race in which eight teams are over .500, a loss to a conference pretender can be catastrophic.

But no matter how you slice it, it’s hard to see the Redskins losing despite a defensive front that is deli meat-thin because of injuries to tackles Joe Salave’a, Cedric Killings and Aki Jones.

The 49ers appear too young (three rookies start), too mistake-ridden (they’ve lost 17 turnovers) and too battered (six starters are out or doubtful) to present much of a challenge to a Redskins team that dominated them last December in San Francisco.

“We’re a team that’s young and hasn’t proven itself yet,” said Nolan, who has just six players who’ve reached 30 compared to 15 for the Redskins. “We’re in a different place than [the Redskins]. We’re looking to turn this thing around. Obviously, the objective is to win. Outside of that, you want to see progress each and every week.”

Winning is the bare minimum for the Redskins today. Progress would come by forcing turnovers, which they haven’t done since they last faced a rookie quarterback — Chicago’s Kyle Orton in Week 1 — and not turning the ball over, which hasn’t happened in 10 games.

Washington also would like to get running back Clinton Portis into the end zone for the first time in nine games and maybe even get LaVar Arrington into the mix at linebacker, if only to quell the sideshow that the three-time Pro Bowl pick’s lack of playing time has become.

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