For the Washington Redskins, the outcome of the season has come down to a home finale against the New York Giants.
The situation is simple. If the Redskins lose Sunday afternoon, they will not qualify for the playoffs and their season ends. If they win, they wait for a final in that night’s Green Bay-Detroit game. Unless that game somehow, improbably, ends in a tie, the Redskins will face the NFC’s third seed during the first week of the postseason.
The Giants are basically the same team that fell 29-27 at home on Sept. 25 to Washington, but the Redskins are a different team 13 weeks later — especially on the offensive side of the football.
Running back Robert Kelley was a non-factor in the September game, with the bulk of the touches going to Matt Jones and Chris Thompson.
Since then, the rookie has bulled his way into the team’s featured back role, with five career games of at least 15 carries and six total rushing touchdowns.
The Redskins slumped when the tream abandoned the run from the Thanksgiving Day game against Dallas through the first half of December. Kelley averaged just 13 carries per game over that four-game stretch. But against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, the run game returned, with Kelley carried the ball 19 times for 76 yards. Since Kelley took over the starting job in Week 8, the Redskins are 4-0-1 when he has at least 16 carries. Under 16 carries, Washington is 0-3-0.
Against the Bears, Kelley exited the game early with a knee injury but eventually re-entered. This week, Kelley has been a limited participant in practice, but he says the knee feels fine and close to normal.
Another wrinkle the Redskins can throw at the Giants: a rejuvenated DeSean Jackson.
From Week 4 to Week 11, Jackson had just 229 receiving yards on 20 catches in six games. But, in the last five games, Jackson has recorded at least 100 yards four times, and the big play threat has opponents on their heels. Jackson has two touchdowns in that span, a 67-yard reception and an 80-yarder. In fact, in each of those four games, Jackson has recorded a reception of at least 57 yards.
Both quarterback Kirk Cousins and coach Jay Gruden insist that they haven’t drawn up more plays specifically for Jackson. Instead, Cousins is simply recognizing the right time to throw the ball deep. Sometimes it works when Jackson finds a gap in the pass coverage, and sometimes it’s simply when he outruns his man in a man-to-man coverage scheme.
“When [the deep ball’s] there, they need to be hit,” Cousins said. “I think we have been very accurate down the field this season. I think it has been an improvement from past years and when they’re there, we’ve got to hit them.”
Gruden said the veteran Jackson is still a gamebreaker.
“Sometimes when he’s jogging it looks like he’s running 100 miles an hour,” Gruden said. “He’s got great speed, obviously he’s got great quickness and still has unbelievable hands.”
Jackson was able to find success against the Giants’ secondary earlier this season, snagging five catches for 96 yards and a touchdown.
While much is going right for the Redskins’ offense, the defense has been bruised, especially within the safety position. Already without linebacker/safety Su’a Cravens, the Redskins were forced to place safety Donte Whitner Sr. on the injured reserve list. Initially, the hope was for Cravens to fill in as a safety, but the rookie hasn’t participated in practice since injuring his bicep against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 14. As a result, the Redskins signed safety Josh Evans on Wednesday to bolster the unit that has already gone through six different safeties this season.
With their playoff position assured, the Giants have nothing to lose or gain on Sunday, but Giants coach Ben McAdoo said that his starters are going to play. In a conference call, he wouldn’t go into detail on just how long they will play, but he did continuously say that his starting players would play because he doesn’t “know any other way to do it” when it comes to playing football.
The Redskins are prepared for whoever the Giants decide to field. They are preparing for the starters, but have an understanding of who New York could potentially throw in, especially backup quarterback Josh Johnson. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry spent two years with Johnson with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Gruden spent some time with him with the Cincinnati Bengals. If the Giants replace Eli Manning with Johnson — or any other positional player for that matter — the defense will be prepared.
“We’re getting ready for the New York Giants’ offense,” Barry said. “It doesn’t matter what 11 guys are out there. We can’t control that. We don’t even have to think about it.”