- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 27, 2015

PHILADELPHIA — As Kirk Cousins walked out of his postgame press conference following the Washington Redskins‘ 38-24 win against the Philadelphia Eagles, he asked a question to nobody in particular and everybody all at once.

“How many of them picked us to win the division?” Cousins asked rhetorically.

The truth is, not many people did, except for the players inside the Redskins‘ locker room. The Redskins secured the NFC East title with Saturday’s win — something most considered improbable after winning just seven games in the last two seasons.

There were plenty of bumps in the road, many which at times made it hard to gauge the franchise’s improvement, but there was no mistake about it on Saturday night. This is a team that has stepped forward out of the doom-and-gloom of 2013 and 2014, with a trusted quarterback under center in Cousins and cast of contributors that have stepped up in a wide variety of circumstances.

As difficult as it was at times — from the moment tight ends Niles Paul and Logan Paulsen sustained season-ending injuries in the preseason to injuries throughout the year to the offensive line and the defense — the Redskins‘ confidence never wavered. They always believed in themselves, even if nobody else did.

That’s how the Redskins overcame the roadblocks, literally, by winning two of their last three games away from FedEx Field against Philadelphia and the Chicago Bears after going 0-5 prior to that. After their first road win against the Bears, the next challenge became winning consecutive games, which they hadn’t done all season until they beat the Buffalo Bills at home. The Redskins closed out their quest for a division title with their third consecutive win — the first time they’ve done so since winning the division in 2012.

“We believed from day one,” nose tackle Terrance Knighton said. “We were working for this. This was the goal the whole time. We weren’t just trying to make it through the season. We had to conquer some demons and we did, put three games together to take this thing home for the city.

“It’s about winning. That’s why I’m here. That’s why Ricky [Jean Francois] is here. [General manager Scot McCloughan] put the right people together. Nobody believed. Everybody had us last in the power rankings. We believed, I believed and that’s all we needed.”

Now, the Redskins head into Week 17 to face the Dallas Cowboys with a playoff spot secured. With that, here’s a look at three keys from Washington’s win.

** The Redskins converted just 5 of 14 of their third-down conversions, or 36 percent — their fifth worst showing of the season. What is important is the situations the Redskins were facing on third downs that they actually converted, not how many they failed at. On the same drive in the third quarter, Cousins and the offense picked up first downs and third-and-10 and third-and-14. The first came when Cousins connected with wide receiver Pierre Garcon on a 17-yard pass to convert on third-and-10. Three plays later, on third-and-14, Cousins hit running back Pierre Thomas for a 15-yard gain. The result of the prolonged drive? Cousins delivered a 12-yard touchdown to running back Chris Thompson on third-and-6 to give the Redskins a 23-10 lead. In the fourth quarter, on third-and-goal from the 13-yard line, Cousins found Garcon for the score. Entering Saturday’s game, the Redskins had picked up first down on third-and-10 or longer just eight times.

** Washington’s defense dialed up the pressure against Philadelphia. The Redskins sacked quarterback Sam Bradford five times for a loss of 27 yards. Outside linebacker Preston Smith sacked Bradford three times, the most by a Redskins rookie since Brian Orakpo recorded four in 2013. Smith now has seven sacks on the season — the most by a rookie since fellow outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan had 7.5 in 2011. The difference on Saturday was the way in which Smith and the Redskins‘ defense was getting to the quarterback. Smith, who is 6-foot-5 and 271 pounds, often has beat opposing lineman with his hands and long arms. Against the Eagles he flashed some speed of the edge as well. Inside linebacker Will Compton also got his first sack of the season on the Eagles‘ second drive of the season. He rushed at Bradford untouched on a blitz and it was rare to see defensive coordinator Joe Barry be aggressive, especially so early.

** For the most part, the Redskins took good care of the football on Saturday and did not commit a turnover since a win against the New York Giants in Week 12. There was one particularly close call when Cousins fumbled a snap in the second quarter on first-and-10 at the Redskins‘ seven-yard line. Fortunately, Cousins was able to fall on the ball and Washington went three-and-out. It appeared as if center Josh LeRibeus snapped the ball without Cousins expecting it. After the play, left tackle Trent Williams was getting on LeRibeus for the apparent mishap. Of course, ball security is of paramount importance every game, but the fact that the Redskins handled the ball so well in a game with so much at stake is an even greater accomplishment.

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