- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Christmas came early for Washington’s NFL team and its fans. They were able to unwrap a nice, shiny victory Saturday afternoon, not the lump of coal that Philadelphia was expected to deliver and add to the pile.

For at least one day — the first such day since Oct. 27 — there was rejoicing in Washington’s locker room. There wouldn’t be a seventh consecutive defeat. There wouldn’t be back-to-back 13-loss seasons. There wouldn’t be another week of talking about everything that ails this franchise.

Not that the list has changed. Just that it was swept under the rug until the next contest.

“This week we had a little more success,” a relieved coach Jay Gruden said after Washington’s 27-24 victory at FedEx Field. “So you look like you play better when you win the game.”

The fact that it wasn’t a complete debacle — like many efforts of late — would’ve counted as a moral victory. But Washington has played at roughly Saturday’s level in several other games and come out a loser. There’s something to be said about winning, period — whether it’s ugly, so-so or gorgeous.


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Saturday was a bombshell at the end, with rookie cornerback Bashaud Breeland intercepting a pass from Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez to set up Kai Forbath’s game-winning field goal with 5 seconds left. Philadelphia appeared to be en route to breaking the tie moments earlier, as it marched from its own 15-yard line into Washington territory.

“There have been so many games recently where at that juncture, in the fourth quarter, we’re not even in it and don’t have an opportunity to win,” Washington safety Ryan Clark said. “To be in the game and have the opportunity to make one play and get a win — I think guys were excited about that and accepted the challenge. It was new for us.”

The biggest question entering Saturday — and next week’s season-finale against the Dallas Cowboys — was level of effort. Would the team play hard and compete with nothing but pride on the line? The Eagles and Cowboys are battling for the NFC East title. Would Washington show any fight at all?

The answers came quickly and repeatedly.

Washington took the lead, fell behind, went ahead, trailed again and took the lead once more, 17-14, midway through the third quarter. Quarterback Robert Griffin III connected with DeSean Jackson on a 51-yard reception to set up Washington’s first touchdown, and they hooked up again on a 55-yarder late in the third quarter, setting up a Darrel Young touchdown for a 24-14 margin.

Then the Eagles scored 10 points in six minutes and it looked like another home-team fold was in store. Philadelphia tight end Zach Ertz had nine receptions in the second half (and a franchise-record 15 in the game, compared to Washington’s 16 as a team), but Breeland’s pick changed the course of matters.

“As a rookie, he’s one of the guys we’re already leaning on as a leader,” Gruden said. “… If we knew he was that good, we wouldn’t have drafted him in the fourth round; we would’ve drafted him in the second.”

The game marked a nice comeback for Breeland, who had a rough outing against New York Giants star Odell Beckham Jr. last week. RG3 bounced back from his season-long woes as well, playing competently if not spectacularly (aside from the long balls to Jackson).

“It was great to see Robert compete and play,” Gruden said. “It looked like he had a lot of fun out there and the players responeded to him. It’s huge to get a win for him.”

Huge for Griffin, Gruden and everyone else involved in this disappointing campaign. Saturday’s win doesn’t change the overall scent of this season — it still stinks –- but it serves as a splash of cologne.

The fear would be making too much out of the victory. This franchise has long believed it’s close to being championship caliber, but everything suggests that’s a delusional mindset. There still will be plenty of holes and weaknesses even with another victory next week against the hated Cowboys.

Naturally, players can’t come out and say the team is awful. The problem is when folks in the front office feel the same way as defensive end Stephen Bowen.

“I’ve always felt like we have a great team,” he said. “It just feels like we made a lot of mistakes. We have a lot of talent. We just have to find ways to execute and that’s what we did today.”

That overly-rosy outlook can be overlooked temporarily.

Saturday was for celebrating.

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