- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Some team will get hot. Some team always gets hot and separates itself from the NFC pack. But good luck this season guessing which one it will be.

At this point, you can’t even rule out the Redskins, 5-11 stragglers a year ago. In pro football’s I-AA Conference, they’ve jumped out to a 2-0 record and already have a division road win — Monday night’s 20-12 conquest of the Eagles. There are 11 clubs that would love to swap places with them.

It’s wild what’s happening these days in the conference that, from 1981 to ‘96, had almost permanent possession of the Lombardi Trophy. Teams almost seem to take turns being good. Last year it was the long-downtrodden Saints’ turn; somehow, rookie coach Sean Payton steered a club with a suspect defense to the NFC title game. Now the Saints have gone back to being the Saints (0-2), and the Redskins, 49ers and Packers are playing the “Who Wants To Be A Conference Finalist?” Game.

You don’t see that in the AFC. In the AFC, the Colts (2-0) are still the Colts, the Patriots (2-0) are still the Patriots, the Broncos (2-0) are still the Broncos, the Steelers (2-0) are still the Steelers, etc. Sure, the Texans (2-0) have flashed early, but it would be a huge surprise if they were still playing in late January. There are too many brawny bodies in the conference to climb over.

You can look at this two ways. You can look at the NFC as the Motel 6 of pro football — only one of its playoff teams last season has gotten off to a winning start (the Cowboys) — or you can look at it as the Land of Opportunity. After all, in the AFC, the Redskins would have zero chance of making the Super Bowl, especially with the right side of their offensive line currently incapacitated. But in the I-AA Conference, every club is flawed enough to be beaten on any given Sunday, Monday or Thursday by any given Tom, Scott or Bobby. (OK, maybe not every Bobby.)

The Bears are half of a championship team — the defensive half.

The Cowboys are also half of a championship team — the offensive half.

The Redskins don’t wow you on either side of the ball, but they’ve found a way to win twice.

The Niners (2-0) are kind of in the same dinghy. They’re dead last in the league in offense (190 yards a game), and it’s not like they’ve been going up against the Steel Curtain or Purple People Eaters. Still, they’re in first place in the NFC West.

Parity run amok? A temporary down cycle? Why even bother to analyze it? Why not just enjoy it for what it is. I mean — who knows? — out of all these fair-to-middling clubs might emerge another Boise State. (In which case, the Redskins had better be practicing their hook-and-lateral play.)

In Joe Gibbs’ first go-round, it was exactly the opposite. When his team lost to the Giants in the ‘86 NFC title game, there was little doubt it was the second best in the league — certainly not in Bill Parcells’ mind. But the conference could send only one representative to the Super Bowl, so the Redskins had to stay home and watch Phil McConkey run wild against the Broncos.

Nobody, then, should be making any apologies for how good the NFC is or isn’t these days. There’s no law that says a conference champ has to be the Second Coming of the Lombardi Packers, just one that requires it to play the other conference champ — which might be the Second Coming of the Lombardi Packers — on the first Sunday in February.

Just two years ago, you may recall, the Snydermen had the Seahawks in a spot of trouble in the second round of the playoffs. They had a 3-0 lead late in the second quarter and had put Shaun Alexander out of commission. The Redskins could barely make a first down in that postseason, but they still nearly reached the NFC Championship game.

This Redskins team is better than that one — has more offensive firepower, better defensive speed, enviable depth at running back. And if it continues to take advantage of an accommodating early schedule (the Giants, Lions, Packers and Cardinals are next), it could be 5-1 or even 6-0 when it heads to New England. Then, if the Redskins could just play .500 ball the rest of the way …

Jason Campbell, let’s not forget, has started only nine NFL games. He should be a much better quarterback by the end of the season. (And he ain’t half-bad right now.) Best of all, Campbell functions well when the score is close, keeps his head about him. Given the competitive balance in the conference, the Redskins figure to have plenty of white knucklers this year.

What happened, you ask, to my preseason prediction of 8-8 for the Redskins? Answer: Donovan McNabb not coming back strong from his knee injury happened. The Seahawks letting a game get away at Arizona happened. The Bears looking even more lost offensively than they did last year happened. The Cowboys giving up 55 points in their first two games happened.

The NFC is there for the taking — for somebody. It might even be a somebody we know.

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