- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2006

Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, never one to shy from hyperbole if it makes an opponent seem larger than life, said Monday’s opener against the Minnesota Vikings was one of the biggest games of his 15-year Hall of Fame career.

So naturally, Gibbs said, “you couldn’t have a tougher assignment” than tonight’s game against the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium. And that was before the coach deemed franchise running back Clinton Portis unable to play because of a re-injured left shoulder.

Not only did the Redskins follow a listless and winless preseason with a 19-16 upset loss to the Vikings at home, they had one less day of rest than the Cowboys and had to travel. Washington also will have to try to cover Terrell Owens without its top cornerback, Shawn Springs, who blanketed the big receiver effectively twice in 2004 when Owens played for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Though the Redskins swept the Cowboys last year for the first time since 1995, they had won just two of the previous 16 semiannual NFC East matchups. Those two victories last season also improved Gibbs’ record to just 8-13 against Dallas coach Bill Parcells, his tormentor from 1985 to 1990 when the latter was with the New York Giants.

Parcells’ Cowboys, who lost four of their last six games in 2005 to miss the playoffs for a second straight season, have their own issues. They gave up 24 straight points in a 24-17 loss last week at Jacksonville, falling victim to sloppy play (nine penalties for 93 yards and three interceptions), the Florida heat and an aggressive Jaguars defense.

Mike Vanderjagt, to whom Dallas gave $2.4million in March to solve its long-standing kicking woes, was held out of the opener with his confidence reeling from an awful August and might not play again tonight with the pressure of national television.

Dallas quarterback Drew Bledsoe jokingly asked Redskins beat reporters Wednesday if “the sky’s falling, the world’s coming to an end” in Washington, too. But the truth is that tonight’s loser will be 0-2 and face an uphill climb to the playoffs. Dallas would have lost a home division game heading into its bye week while Washington would be 0-2 in the NFC with only one more conference game on tap until the Nov.5 rematch with the Cowboys.

“If you’re going to have a short week, it’s probably best to have it against a team in your division that you face twice [a year],” said defensive end Phillip Daniels, who tied a Washington record with four sacks in a 35-7 rout of Dallas last Dec.18. “No one wants to go down 0-2. I’m pretty sure they’re the same way. It’s going to be a cat fight. Whoever wants it the most is gonna get it.”

A receiver on each side is sure to get plenty of focus tonight.

Owens will want to score a touchdown in front of his new home fans and, in the words of Springs, “act the fool like he always does. Sunday night, prime-time. He’s going to do something because that’s what keeps you on [ESPN’s] ‘SportsCenter.’”

With Springs sidelined while recovering from abdominal surgery, Redskins assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams apparently didn’t trust lesser corners Carlos Rogers, Kenny Wright and Mike Rumph to cover well enough to bring many of his trademark blitzes. So wily Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson was able to take his time finding the holes in Washington’s secondary.

The Redskins, who allowed five completions of at least 20 yards and only sacked Johnson once, need to step up the pressure on the strong-armed but immobile Bledsoe, whose offensive line isn’t as good as Minnesota’s. But Owens, Terry Glenn, et al, are a step up from the Vikings’ pedestrian targets.

So is Redskins receiver Santana Moss, who transformed into a Pro Bowl receiver almost overnight with two long touchdown catches from quarterback Mark Brunell (who turns 36 today) in the span of 71 seconds late in the fourth quarter a year ago Tuesday. The plays turned a 13-0 deficit into a stunning 14-13 victory and launched Washington toward the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season.

“When you’re down by 13 points the whole game and you find a way to win, that’s going to give you so much confidence,” Moss said. “And what better team to do it on? It did a lot for our team and the individuals that were involved in it. [But] we can’t go out there banking on that again. A big-time play ain’t going to get it done. We’re looking for a big-time win.”

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