If, of course, the team stayed together. It wasn't just because Washington beat New Orleans, 40-10, on Sunday. It was how the Redskins did it. They did it on the road after trailing 10-0 in the first quarter. They did it without their best defensive player, linebacker LaVar Arrington. And they did it with nothing on the line. But they did it, improving to 7-8 with one game left in the season.
''The character of the team is what stands out to me,'' Redskins linebacker Eddie Mason said. ''We didn't quit or give up. I wish we were going to the playoffs, but at the same time this is something to build upon. I'm excited about the opportunities here and I want to be a part of it.''
''We came up short of our goal,'' Redskins tackle Dan Wilkinson said. ''This is not where we wish to be. But we can build something.'' Or, as rookie corner Fred Smoot said, ''We showed what we could expect from the Redskins for years to come.''
That's what Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer hopes. ''We obviously have things we have to improve upon,'' he said. ''But I don't know if we can improve the heart of this team. It's as good as any I've been around. When they were 0-5, they could have mailed it in but they continued to work.''
One reason for the win: improved red zone play. In their last three losses, Washington struggled to score inside the 20-yard line. The Redskins had eight possessions inside the red zone during that stretch and managed only three touchdowns. Those failures cost Washington a chance at making the playoffs. But the Redskins showed a much different side to their offense against New Orleans. Washington scored on seven straight possessions versus the Saints. And the Redskins did it all different ways: with turnovers, solid drives and fortunate bounces.
After weeks of futility, they needed all the help they could get. During the past two games, running back Stephen Davis gained only 15 yards on eight runs inside the 20--and five of those were for only one yard or less. Not so against the Saints. Davis, who left the game with a bruised right knee in the second half, scored on a six-yard yard run in the second quarter. In the fourth quarter, running back Ki-Jana Carter scored on a two-yard run. He capped the scoring with a one-yard run with 2:33 remaining in the game.
Redskins quarterback Tony Banks chipped in, too. Over the past two games, Banks had completed just one of 11 passes for nine yards and two interceptions inside the 20. His numbers weren't great against the Saints--he completed (four) of seven throws for 28 yards. But he was effective and even scored on a two-yard bootleg around left end. His play fake suckered the safety and linebacker, who bit inside. Banks scored easily, giving Washington a 23-10 lead. Corner Darrell Green set up the touchdown when he hit quarterback Aaron Brooks on a delayed blitz. Green tipped the ball in the air and tackle Dan Wilkinson intercepted it at the Saints' 18.
The play was indicative of the pressure they applied on Brooks, who never found his rhythm. New Orleans entered with the NFL's fourth-rated pass offense, but it never got untracked, thanks to the Redskins corners. Saints receiver Joe Horn, who entered with 78 receptions, caught his first pass with 11:24 remaining in the game. And receiver Willie Jackson, who entered with 67 catches, finished with six. Both Redskins corners, Smoot and Champ Bailey, intercepted Brooks.
''We just manned up against them and did what we did all year,'' Smoot said. The red zone success began in the first half, helping the Redskins erase a 10-0 first-quarter deficit. This time, Davis plowed through a sliver of an opening on the right side. The right side of the line--pulling guard Dave Szott, tight end Zeron Flemister, tight end Walter Rasby and tackle Jon Jansen--created enough of an opening. Then Davis rammed through two would-be tacklers en route to the score, capping a 12-play, 76-yard drive. The Redskins converted all three third downs on this possession. Banks completed a 12-yard pass on third and five to Flemister and, later, a 17-yard pass to receiver Kevin Lockett on third and 11 to the Saints' 17.
After driving 66 yards on its first series--and scoring on a 22-yard screen pass to running back Deuce McCallister--the Saints' offense did little. Their only other scoring chance ended in a missed 42-yard John Carney field goal attempt. The Saints' next drive ended at their own 15 and punter Toby Gowin's 25-yard punt gave Washington possession at the 40. The Redskins only gained five yards, but kicker Brett Conway cashed in on some overdue luck.
''I figured we were overdue,'' Schottenheimer said. He's knocked three field goal attempts off the uprights--all bounced away. Last night, Conway bounced a 53-yard kick off the crossbar--and it hopped over, tying the game at 10. Conway snapped the tie with a 22-yard field goal, set up by Bailey's interception, giving Washington the ball at the New Orleans' 21.
The Saints started the game on fire, intent on proving that they hadn't mentally checked out on their season. They took advantage of Washington's reserve linebackers--starters LaVar Arrington (knee) and Kevin Mitchell (ankle/injured reserve list) did not play. New Orleans' Ricky Williams gained 26 yards on this series and the Saints dumped three passes underneath coverage for another 23 yards.
''Eight and eight looks a whole lot better than seven and nine,'' Banks said. ''I keep making parallels to when I was in Baltimore and we went 8-8. We took that to the offseason and the preparation was great and th rest is history. A win does more for building than losing does.