When the Washington Redskins fell to 3-6, it looked like beginning of the end of their season. Really, it was more of a crossroads.
“Your season can go one of two ways when you’re sitting there at 3-6,” quarterback Robert Griffin III said. “It can get really, really bad or you can have shining moments like we’ve had the past two weeks.”
Shining moments in two victories have the Redskins at 5-6 and thinking about the playoffs. They’ve played some of their best football of the year while on the razor’s edge between keeping hope alive and watching postseason hopes fade.
“I think that’s the best way to play,” nose tackle Barry Cofield said. “Realistically knowing that you feel like every game is a must-win. Go out there and leave it all out there.
“Having something to fall back on, feeling like, ‘Ah, win, lose or draw we’ll be OK,’ that’s not a good feeling. Being backs to the wall in the corner, me against the world, I think that’s the way that most teams are thriving nowadays.”
Without margin for error, the Redskins are rolling, begging the question of how they can embrace a precarious position and turn it into an advantage.
“You’d be surprised when everything’s on the line how people will play,” defensive end Stephen Bowen said. “We’re playing like this is our last play we ever can play this season. It’s great. Everybody’s paying attention to detail, and everybody just wants to put in the work to get a win. Whatever it takes.”
That has meant two NFC East victories — a 31-6 blowout of Philadelphia and an emotional 38-31 win at Dallas — that have kept playoff hopes on life support. Monday night’s game against the first-place New York Giants is the biggest yet.
Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said the Redskins aren’t going to make any bones about it: This is an important game. Winning puts them one step closer to the top of the NFC East and into contention while losing just about puts the playoffs out of reach.
They have no choice but to take it one game at a time.
“I guess you could say we know that we have to leave it all out there because are backs are up against the wall and they will continue to be throughout the rest of the season,” Kerrigan said. “We’ve just got to keep going out there with that kind of fight and that kind of tenacity.”
There is a danger in putting too much emphasis on one game. “You can press too hard,” safety Jordan Pugh said.
But that’s not what the Redskins have been doing. Tactically, they’ve improved the turnover ratio, forcing six combined against the Eagles and Cowboys, and carved opponents up on offense behind Griffin, running back Alfred Morris and a healthier Pierre Garcon. Pass defense has improved, and kicker Kai Forbath has been perfect.
That recipe added up to back-to-back wins for the first time since September 2011.
“When you win, you just feel more confident; you’ve got that swagger about yourself,” linebacker and special teams captain Lorenzo Alexander said. “It doesn’t matter if you do give up a big play or if you’re out of position. You go and make a play and make something happen for yourself.”
Maybe it’s what right guard Chris Chester called the “natural evolution of a season.” Maybe it was just a matter of time for this group to jell.
“We’ve got a young team, and late in the season they’re getting to see things a little bit more and the looks are becoming easier,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “That can have some ramifications on things, the way we approach the game. But ultimately, I think we have a very talented team, and it’s just all coming together.”
Good time for things to align. Coach Mike Shanahan said at 3-6 that every game the rest of the way was a “playoff game.” That’s because elimination is constantly looming.
“Obviously, you lose a game, your playoff hopes are pretty much just out of the window,” Alexander said. “Guys are just focusing in, playing harder, playing stronger, making more plays. I think a lot of that is that our postseason play is kind of at stake at this point, and if we lose a game, you might as well just kiss it goodbye.”
Williams said it’s impossible to worry too much about a game. That’s because the Redskins believe that the sharper they focus on the task at hand, the more prepared they’ll be to make a run.
“I think we’re clicking pretty well. We’ve got to play better. We’ve got to continue to get better,” Cofield said. “The moment we relax, the moment we feel like we got it all figured out is when we’ll fall.”