- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2008

When the Washington Redskins last honored Sean Taylor at FedEx Field, they jumped to a 16-5 lead against the Buffalo Bills but lost 17-16 on a last-minute field goal.

That loss, just five days after the Pro Bowl safety’s murder, dropped the Redskins to 5-7 and put them on the verge of playoff elimination. But Washington won four straight to reach the postseason, thanks in part to defeating the New York Giants in Week 14.

Almost a year later, the Redskins will induct Taylor, just 24 when he died, into their Ring of Honor before Sunday’s game against the Giants in a ceremony that will include his parents, girlfriend and perhaps their 2-year-old daughter.

Much has changed in the interim. Neophyte Jim Zorn, not Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs, coaches the Redskins. The Giants, no longer a borderline contender, are the Super Bowl champions and at 10-1 have the NFC’s best record. The Redskins (7-4) are better, too, but in the stacked NFC, better might not be good enough to earn a second straight playoff trip for the first time since 1992.

Dallas (8-4) won Thursday to knock the Redskins out of possession of a wild card spot they had owned since September. Tampa Bay and Carolina will be 9-3 or 8-4 after Sunday’s games and Atlanta will be 8-4 if it wins at 4-7 San Diego. One will win the NFC South, leaving the others to battle for the two wild card berths. And if Minnesota beats visiting Chicago and Washington loses to New York, the Vikings would join the Redskins at 7-5 but would have a better conference record (5-3 vs. 6-4).

So, Washington could possibly sink to ninth in the NFC by Sunday night with just four games to play. The Redskins have beaten NFC West leader Arizona, Dallas, New Orleans and Philadelphia, and have only bad one loss - to St. Louis (2-9). But this season, a team with 10 victories might not earn a playoff berth.

“In another year, we could be winning this division,” tight end Chris Cooley said. “The good thing is, we’re still in control. We don’t have to count on any other team losing games. We just need to win. This game’s enormous. To win this would be the biggest confidence boost moving forward toward the playoffs. We beat Dallas and Philly [on the road]. Those were huge games. We need another big game.”

That’s likely what it will take to beat the Giants. New York will be without elite receiver Plaxico Burress, who in addition to battling a hamstring injury suffered an accidental gunshot wound in the right thigh Friday. The Giants could also miss defensive tackle Fred Robbins (shin) but will welcome back leading rusher Brandon Jacobs, sidelined last week with an ailing knee. The Giants are the only team in the league to rank in the top eight in yards, points, yards allowed and points allowed.

“They’re playing great in all three phases,” Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell said. “If we want to have any kind of shot [at winning the NFC East], this is a game we have to win.”

Washington’s battered starters complicate that challenge. NFL rushing leader Clinton Portis (ribs, knee), five-time Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels (knee), right end Andre Carter (foot), right tackle Kedric Golston (ankle), middle linebacker London Fletcher (foot) and strongside linebacker Marcus Washington (ankle) didn’t practice all week. Washington won’t play and Golston probably won’t either. The other four will be game-time decisions, with Samuels and Portis more likely to play than Carter and Fletcher.

That puts the onus on Washington’s offense, which has averaged just 14.3 points the past six games.

“Our defense has been outstanding all year,” Cooley said. “Our offense … it’s like we need a spark. It’s like we need a big play which in the last month we haven’t had.”

Indeed, none of Washington’s five plays of at least 30 yards have come in November. The Giants, whose 154 rushing yards in Week 1 are the most allowed by Washington, have had 16 such plays.

“The most physical team is going to win,” Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache said. “We have the No. 1 rushing team in the league coming in, so there’s a huge challenge right in front of us at home, on a big day when we honor the passing of Sean Taylor. Our guys have to draw strength from the environment and play at the top of our game.”

If they don’t, the Redskins will again have their backs against the wall in December. They rallied from under .500 to the playoffs in 2005 and 2007. A 4-0 December might not be enough this time.

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