- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2008

This isn’t Joe Gibbs’ greatest team, but it might be his most battle tested. Seriously, what playoff club this season has encountered higher hurdles than the Redskins?

I’m not talking about the murder of Sean Taylor or the vagaries of injuries. I’m talking about strength of schedule, the competition the Snydermen have gone up against week after week.

For starters, the NFC East is back to being the nastiest division in the conference. This is the second straight year it has three tickets in the postseason lottery — and the first (going back to its formation in 1970) in which none of its teams finished with a losing record. The Eagles came in last with an 8-8 mark, and in the second half of the season they beat the Redskins and Cowboys on the road and nearly knocked off the Perfect Patriots. No, there were no breathers this year in the NFC East.

Now look at the Redskins’ other conference games. They faced two division champs (Packers, Bucs), two 8-8 clubs (Cardinals, Vikings) and two 7-9 clubs (Bears, Lions). That’s right, the “easiest” games on their NFC schedule were against a team that went to the Super Bowl last season and a team that was 3-1 when it came to Washington on Oct. 14.

That’s why there was such a sense of anticipation as 91,000 fans filed out of FedEx Field late Sunday. You can always tell whether the Redskins have won or lost by the sound — high-pitched (victory) or low-pitched (defeat) — emanating from the crowd as it exits the stadium. But on this night the pitch wasn’t just high, it was shrieking, the kind of sound normally associated with a swarm of worked-up bees. This town is excited.

And understandably so. For the past month, the Redskins have been playing stifling defense and getting high-level, interception-free quarterbacking — a winning playoff formula if there ever was one. The hardest part of the task ahead is reeling off three victories on foreign turf — Seattle, Dallas after that and then probably Green Bay. But the Redskins match up much better against the Seahawks than they did two years ago, largely because of Todd Collins’ play; and let’s not forget, they nearly won at Dallas and Green Bay earlier in the season.

Not to get anybody’s hopes up or anything.

Other observations and ruminations as the playoffs approach:

• Speaking of stifling defense and high-level quarterbacking, those two categories were the best indicators of whether or not a team qualified for the postseason. The eight defenses that allowed the fewest points are all in the playoffs, as are the eight top-rated passers. On the other hand, only seven of the top nine clubs in turnover margin made it (the Bills and Bengals missing out) and only three of the top eight rushers are in (LaDainian Tomlinson, Willie Parker and Clinton Portis). Make of that what you will.

• If the Patriots go all the way, no one can say they didn’t earn it. They figure to face the second- (Ben Roethlisberger) or third-rated (David Garrard) passer in their first playoff game, the fourth-rated passer (Peyton Manning) in the AFC Championship game and No. 5 (Tony Romo) or No. 6 (Brett Favre) in the Super Bowl — provided, that is, the postseason goes according to form.

• Pats, Part Two: Their current 16-game winning streak is their third of 12 or longer — counting playoff games — since 2001. To put this in perspective, the Lombardi Packers had only one streak that long (12 games, stretching from ‘61 to ‘62), and the Noll Steelers never won 12 in a row. (Their longest was 11 straight in 1975.)

The NFL, of course, keeps records differently than I do — and doesn’t count playoff games, for some strange reason. To me, a streak’s a streak; it doesn’t go into hibernation once the postseason starts and re-emerge in September. Any way you crunch the numbers, though, the Patriots are one of the greatest teams of all time. A 12-game streak (2001-02), a 21-gamer (‘03-04) and a 16-gamer in the space of seven years? Truly amazing.

• It’s hard to remember another season when so many significant records fell. Favre broke Dan Marino’s records for career touchdown passes (420) and yards (61,361) — and John Elway’s record for wins by a quarterback (148). Tom Brady threw for 50 TDs to break Peyton Manning’s record. Randy Moss caught 23 of Brady’s TD throws to break Jerry Rice’s record (accomplished in 12 games). Adrian Peterson rushed for 296 yards in a game to break Jamal Lewis’ record. Devin Hester broke his own record by returning six kicks for scores. And that’s just some of them.

Lost amid all this hoopla was the 49ers’ Andy Lee, who had arguably the most sensational season by a punter in NFL history. Not only did Lee have a net average of 41 yards (which would have been a record if the Raiders’ Shane Lechler hadn’t chosen this year to average 41.1), he also dropped 42 punts inside the 20-yard line (which is a record).

Granted, punting isn’t as thrilling as a Brady-to-Moss bomb. I mention Lee’s exploits only because, well, the game is still called football.

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