- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 1, 2006

Sean Taylor and Chris Cooley were in high school.

Santana Moss and Clinton Portis were underclassmen at Miami.

LaVar Arrington and Chris Samuels were first-team All-American selections at Penn State and Alabama, respectively.

Mark Brunell and Renaldo Wynn were gearing up for a playoff run with the Jacksonville Jaguars, one that fell a game short of the Super Bowl.

And Joe Gibbs was five years away from stunning the NFL by returning to coach the Washington Redskins.

That was 1999, the last time the Redskins played a regular-season game in which a victory would guarantee a playoff berth. In their 15th game, they rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to defeat San Francisco 26-20 in overtime to clinch the NFC East title.

Today in the regular-season finale at Philadelphia, the Redskins can return to the playoffs with a win over the Eagles. It would increase their winning streak to five games and give them their first 10-win season since 1999.

“It’s going to be huge,” said right tackle Jon Jansen, the longest tenured Redskin who was on the 1999 playoff team.

If the Redskins (9-6) stumble against the 6-9 Eagles, they need St. Louis to beat Dallas tonight to back into the postseason.

“Win and we’re in, lose and we’re out,” said Gibbs, who obviously is expecting Dallas to win. “That’s what it is. We’ve been in this situation the last four weeks, and that’s what our players have rallied behind. Somehow, they’ve been able to grab it and play hard. Now we have to see if we can get the last one.”

The past four wins against St. Louis, Arizona, Dallas and the New York Giants featured an offense that has picked up steam (35 points the last two weeks and four straight 100-yard rushing games by Portis) and a defense that has created turnovers, gotten to the quarterback and allowed only four touchdowns during the streak.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, has 13 players on injured reserve, has been without receiver Terrell Owens for half the season and has an offense that leads the league in the Guys You’ve Never Heard Of Department.

But while big wins the last two weeks against the Cowboys and Giants have proved the Redskins are different from the 2000 to 2004 teams that went a combined 34-46, today presents a new challenge. Can they take care of business as the road favorite against a tumbling opponent?

“It’s extremely hard to win five in a row. That’s rare stuff,” Gibbs said. “It takes tremendous focus and hard work. You have to get yourself mentally right to play and win a fifth straight game. … For us, there’s so much riding on it that you get nervous and worried about it. We’re going to have to play great.”

Said Brunell, who is expected to start despite a sprained right knee: “Guys have worked really hard all year to get to this place, and from where we were at 5-6 to be here, it’s pretty remarkable. All that being said, as great as the last four games have been, if we don’t get this one, it will be tough to end this season that way.”

The Redskins, who haven’t won five straight games since 2001, were a mess at the beginning of December, their 3-0 start a distant memory after losses to Tampa Bay, Oakland and San Diego by a combined 10 points left them at 5-6. They knew they needed to win their final five and get some help to reach the postseason. A month later, they have won the first four games and have gotten the required assistance to control their fate.

Philadelphia is used to being in the Redskins’ situation, playing meaningful late-season games. The Eagles entered the season as the NFC favorite and had reached the conference title game four straight seasons. But this season has been a disaster. The starting offense includes Mike McMahon, Ryan Moats, Adrien Clarke and Jamaal Jackson. The defense has remained relatively healthy but has not played up to its lofty standards in allowing 23.8 points and 328.5 yards a game.

“There’s no way in the world I ever would have thought we would be in this position,” safety Brian Dawkins said.

Asked to identify the strangest thing he witnessed this year, Dawkins said: “Just pick one. I’ll just toss them in the air, and you grab one. There were so many things it’s been ridiculous, and then some things have been unfortunate.”

But don’t tell the Redskins that Philadelphia has nothing at stake.

“It irritates me when I hear people say they have nothing to play for,” assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said. “They’re professionals just like we are. They’re going to play. Some of those guys might not be back next year, and they’re playing for a job.”

Gibbs-coached teams have had eight winning streaks of at least five games. In 1989, the Redskins won their final five to finish at 10-6 but were left out of the playoffs. The Redskins won’t be left out if they get their 10th win today.

“We have a chance to do something great,” safety Ryan Clark said. “I think we’ve set a standard around here for winning. When we were 5-6, guys could have quit. But we work hard around here, and it would be a blessing to keep playing.”

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