- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2006

In recent years, the Monday after the Redskins’ regular-season finale has been devoted to (a) figuring out how high they’re going to pick in the draft, (b) determining which teams they’re going to play the next year and (c) speculating about whether the coach is going to be fired.

Not necessarily in that order.

What a refreshing change, then, to trek to Ashburn yesterday and talk about the team’s playoff prospects. Yes, Joe Gibbs’ Band of Brothers is headed to Tampa for a first-round game against the rough-and-tumble Bucs, only the Redskins’ second postseason appearance since Coach Joe went NASCAR on us in 1993.

But the circumstances are a little different for Gibbs this time around, as he certainly has noticed. In the days before free agency, one playoff berth often begat another — and perhaps another — because it was so much easier to keep a team together, so much less player movement.

All that, of course, has changed. The guy the Redskins thought would be their middle linebacker this year, Antonio Pierce, is now stuffing the run for the NFC East champion Giants. And the guy they thought would be their right cornerback, Fred Smoot, sailed off to play for the Vikings (who barely missed the postseason with a 9-7 record).

It’s harder to hang on to assistant coaches, too — in part because there are more franchises than there were in ‘93 (four to be exact), and in part because owners seem to have less patience with head coaches and are always looking for Somebody New. In the coming weeks, that somebody could be Redskins defensive boss Gregg Williams or defensive line coach Greg Blache.

The message is clear: It would behoove the Redskins to make the most of this playoff opportunity because there’s no telling when they’ll get another. Their quarterback is 35 (and not looking any younger), they’ve already traded their 2006 first-round pick and their health this season, let’s face it, has been fairly good.

They’re also competing in the toughest division in the NFC. The Giants improved from 6-10 to 11-5, the Redskins from 6-10 to 10-6 and the Cowboys from 6-10 to 9-7. And the Eagles, rest assured, will be back.

“This division next year is going to be something,” Gibbs predicted. “The fans here are going to see a lot of good football.”

A big plus for the Redskins is that, as Coach Joe says, they’re “battle-tested.” Ten of their games and five of their wins have been against teams that finished 9-7 or better. Pretty impressive.

Their major issue — and you’d better believe the other playoff clubs know it — is Mark Brunell. After the Redskins lost three in a row to drop to 5-6, they essentially took the ball out of Brunell’s hands and gave it to Clinton Portis. Consider these numbers: In the first 11 games, Brunell threw it 349 times and Portis ran it 222; in the last five games, Brunell threw it 105 and Portis ran it 130.

Early in the season, Brunell carried the offense more. Now, in football parlance, he’s just “driving the car.” And because of that, playoff opponents probably will try to bottle up Portis and make No.8 beat them.

And maybe he can. The passing game is still formidable with Santana Moss, one of the best deep threats in the league, and Chris Cooley, one of the top tight ends. But Brunell hasn’t thrown for 200 yards since November (the first game against the Bucs) and hasn’t strung three solid performances together since October. And that’s what you need in the playoffs to keep advancing — not spectacular play from your quarterback necessarily but consistently good play. Brunell’s passer rating Sunday against Philadelphia was 52.3; against Arizona it was 34.2 (and against Oakland, three weeks before that, it was 58.7).

By every significant measure, Brunell is a middle-of-the-pack NFL quarterback. He’s the 13th-ranked passer overall, 18th-ranked on third down and 18th-ranked in the fourth quarter. What’s keeping the Redskins going right now are Portis’ churning legs and Williams’ relentless defense. But if their QB can raise his level of play just a little these next few games, who knows? It’s not like anybody in the conference is a prohibitive favorite, even the 13-3 Seahawks.

When things looked bleakest for the Redskins this season, Gibbs reminisced yesterday, he got the veterans together “and they decided, ‘We’re not going to waste [the sacrifice of] the offseason. We’re not going to waste all these practices and the hard work.’ ”

If they approach the postseason the same way — seize the day, assume there’s no guarantee they’ll make the playoffs next year — they should be OK. The rest, it says here, is up to their southpaw quarterback. He doesn’t figure to get many more chances like this either.

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