PHILADELPHIA--The Redskins dared to mention the playoffs way back when, even in the midst of a five-game losing streak. At the time, it drew muffled laughter.
No one's chuckling anymore. Not after a second straight win on the road, making it five consecutive victories overall. Washington climbed to .500 and within a game and a half of first place in the NFC East with a 13-3 win over Philadelphia on Sunday.
With games against lowly Dallas and Arizona up next, Washington (5-5) has a chance to become a serious contender to win the division. The Redskins insist they weren't joking when they maintained a strong belief in themselves, even at 0-5. And no player expressed any surprise at the turnaround.
''We are just going to keep marching and keep marching with a grudge,'' Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington said. ''We have a chip on our shoulder because six weeks ago people were up in my face and everyone's face around here saying that there was going to be a new coaching staff and people were asking why we couldn't win.''
Now they want to know how they've kept winning. And how much longer it will continue. But the Redskins have vaulted from a nice story to a playoff contender with tough road wins the past two weeks. That's not shocking to them. That it took so long is.
''Even in the games where we were blown out, I could watch the film and say, 'This is why it happened,' '' Redskins linebacker Robert Jones said. ''A lot of the games we lost, we lost from blown assignments. We just made it up in our minds that we wanted to start playing football.'' And they have. But they know six games still remain.
No team has ever gone from 0-5 to 5-5. At least not until Sunday. However, no team has ever made the playoffs after an 0-5 start. ''It may have some historic context to it, but ultimately no one is in the playoffs,'' Redskins corner Darrell Green said. ''While we're celebrating today, we could easily be downgraded tomorrow.''
The Redskins have won a variety of ways during their streak. They've won with big plays against Carolina and the New York Giants. And they've won with a steady, ball-control offense and hard-hitting defense. The Redskins used two Brett Conway field goals, the second a 32-yarder with 30 seconds left in the game. And backup running back Ki-Jana Carter scored on a five-yard run in the second quarter.
Washington also used its hard-hitting defense Sunday, holding Philadelphia to seven first downs and 186 total yards. Denver only gained 186 yards against the Redskins last week. They excelled on third down (three of 13) and fourth down (zero for two) and consistently stuffed Eagles running back Duce Staley (15 carries, 50 yards). Staley's longest run was seven yards. But, more importantly, they contained Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb.
In the second meeting last season, McNabb rushed for 125 yards in a 23-20 win, breaking Washington's hearts time and again with a mad dash for a first down. He didn't do that yesterday. McNabb rushed three times for 39 yards--but 33 yards came on the last play of the game. The Redskins forced McNabb to stay in the pocket and win with his arm. He couldn't do it. McNabb completed 15 of 27 passes for a meager 92 yards.
Washington's game plan: don't blitz McNabb, forcing him to stay in the pocket. The Redskins also used linebacker LaVar Arrington as a spy against McNabb. Arrington would hover around the middle, waiting for McNabb. If he started to step up, Arrington would close the opening, forcing a pass.
''If you blitz against that guy and miss him, you're in trouble,'' Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer said. The ploy worked as McNabb didn't run once in the first half. ''It seemed like their game plan was to have McNabb sit in the pocket and pick us apart,'' Arrington said.
Washington used mostly man coverage, though the Redskins occasionally fooled McNabb with their scheme. Once, in the first half, Redskins corner Champ Bailey appeared to be covering receiver James Thrash one on one, flowing with him as he went in motion. That left McNabb thinking a pass to Bailey's side in the flat to Staley could be open. Instead, Bailey let Thrash go past him and played a zone, taking the flat. His presence slowed Staley, holding him to a two-yard gain. But, for the most part, Washington opted for man-to-man coverage and a patient defensive line.
''We knew we couldn't get out of our rush lanes or McNabb would hurt us,'' Redskins tackle Dan Wilkinson said. ''Everyone stayed spread out and we made him deliver the ball. You don't want him running around. That's when he beats you.'' The Redskins' defense also stopped Philadelphia twice on fourth downs in the final quarter. Both occured in Redskins territory--Green smothered receiver Freddie Mitchell on fourth and three at the Redskins' 33 stopping the first try.
Later, on fourth and one from the Washington 35, Arrington slid under his blocker and tripped up Correll Buckhalter for no gain. Middle linebacker Kevin Mitchell shot through the middle on the play, forcing Buckhalter to run wider than he wanted. ''I actually was trying to make him go back inside,'' Mitchell said. ''It felt like I tripped him and I made him run farther than he wanted to.''
The only time Washington's defense failed came in the third quarter. Arrington was flagged for a personal foul, for retaliating against tackle Tra Thomas. The 15-yard penalty wiped out a stop for no gain on second and seven, giving Philadelphia the ball at Washington's 40. Four plays later David Akers kicked a 49-yard field goal. Washington's offense dominated the game in the first half, leading to a 10-0 lead and large doses of booing by Eagles fans.
The Redskins held the ball for 20 minutes, 53 seconds in the first half, managing 11 first downs to Philadelphia's one. Carter gave the Redskins a 7-0 lead on a five-yard second-quarter run, breaking free of Hollis Thomas, the Eagles' 306-pound tackle, at the 7, then racing to the end zone.
''It seemed like it took forever to get there,'' Carter said. ''I made a guy miss and everyone sealed the rest of the guys off and I walked into the end zone. It was just natural instincts. Sometimes you do things and you don't know where they came from.''
The Redskins increased their lead to 10-0 in the second quarter on a 43-yard Conway field goal with eight seconds left. Conway's second kick capped a 15-play, 50-yard drive that lasted 8:55. The last kick clinched the win, and provided the Redskins a chance to congratulate one another.
But they know the bottom line: they're 5-5. ''There's a lot of games left to play,'' Wilkinson said. ''But we've given ourselves a chance.''