In the NFL, the term "must-win game" is grossly overused. Players will tell you that, because of a limited 16-game regular season, every game is pivotal. But, as the Vikings prepare for the Washington Redskins Sunday night at the Metrodome, the phrase "must-win" not only applies, the other end of the spectrum – the must-lose category – could be the playoff death blow to the loser.
If the Vikings win and the Saints lose Sunday, the Vikings guarantee themselves a spot in the postseason dance and the Redskins' playoff dreams are dead and gone. If the Vikings lose, they fall into a tie with the Redskins at 8-7 with one game to play and Washington holding all the cards, not to mention the Vikings also falling behind New Orleans if the Saints win Sunday. So it is easy to apply the "must-win" tag to this contest, because with so much at stake, it has become tantamount to a playoff elimination game for the loser.
The Redskins looked to be down and out at 5-7 while riding a four-game losing streak, but wins over the Bears and Giants have propelled them back into playoff contention. They've made their late run behind quarterback Todd Collins. Collins, who went an incredible 10 years between starts, has led the Redskins to two straight wins, completing 23 of 45 passes for 390 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 95.6. While clearly not an imposing NFL threat at QB, he has managed both games he's played since replacing injured Jason Campbell and made a decent accounting of himself. The key for the Vikings will to be pressuring Collins off the snap. While he knows how to read defenses, actually getting pressure applied in game situations is a far different story and, for all his experience, his on-field work is still extremely limited and those types of passers will make mistakes because of a lack of tangible work with the first-team receivers.
While there are legitimate questions at quarterback, the running games is solid as a rock. Clinton Portis has been a workhorse, averaging 20 carries a game and currently with 1,082 yards rushing on the season. He is adept at making people miss and is good both as a receiver (38 receptions for 314 yards) and a strong short-yardage runner with eight TDs. He is spelled by Ladell Betts, another solid runner-receiver who has replaced Portis in the past and put up big days as a featured back. The plan is likely to get Portis 15-20 carries and Betts 5-10 rushes. Fullback Mike Sellers is a throwback FB, used as a blocker, goal-line runner and receiver. He doesn't get a lot of touches, but they usually come at key times.
The Redskins have a slew of dangerous receivers that can cause problems for opposing defenses and, with the possibility of Antoine Winfield being out, the Redskins may look to throw more often than normal. Speed is the name of the game for the Redskins, led by Santana Moss. While he only has one TD this year, Moss is a dangerous receiver who can turn a short slant pass into an 80-yard score. On the other side is Antwaan Randle El, a multi-faceted player who can catch passes, take reverses and throw passes. He hasn't caught a TD pass yet this year, but has 43 receptions and, like Moss, is dangerous after the catch. The Redskins have good veteran depth with Keenan McCardell, James Thrash and Reche Caldwell, giving them about as much depth at the position as any team in the conference.
Yet, with all the wide receiver talent, the main man in the passing game is tight end Chris Cooley. Thought to be something of a fluke as a rookie, in his fourth season, Cooley has become a mainstay of Joe Gibbs' offense and leads the Redskins in not only receptions (60) and yards (711), but has seven of the team's 14 touchdown receptions. While the Vikings have seen some of the league's best tight ends this year – Antonio Gates of San Diego, Tony Gonzalez of Kansas City, Jeremy Shockey of the New York Giants and Vernon Davis of San Francisco – perhaps no tight end could have a bigger impact on the result of a Vikings game more than Cooley if he and Collins get on a roll.
The offensive line has been a work in progress all season. Right tackle Jon Jansen was lost for the season in the first game of the year and right guard Randy Thomas has been on the shelf for most of the year. In their place, veteran Todd Wade has been pushed in at right tackle and 10-year man Jason Fabini has been brought in at guard. Another grizzled vet – Pete Kendall – has been plugged in at left guard. The only players that entered training camp at their current spots are left tackle Chris Samuels and center Casey Rabach. Both are very strong at their positions and they're the primary reason the Redskins' running game has been so effective most of the season. If Jansen and Thomas were healthy, the Redskins would have one of the best O-lines in the NFL. As it stands, they're still pretty good, but their weakness is clearly on the right side.
Defensively is how the Redskins have stayed in the hunt for the playoffs. In 10 of their 14 games, they have limited opponents to 20 points or less and much of the reason for that has been consistent play from the defensive line. Seventh-year pro Andre Carter has enjoyed a renaissance season, among the league leaders with 10.5 sacks from his right end position. Twelve-year greybeard Phillip Daniel is the starting left end, but he is often spelled by sixth-year backup Demetric Evans. In the middle, the Redskins aren't nearly as strong with eight-year journeyman Cornelius Griffin and second-year pro Anthony Montgomery. This is a pair that has been pushed around by bigger, stronger offensive lines and, if the Vikings are going to have success, it will be at the expense of the interior linemen.
One of the Redskins' defensive calling cards under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams have been multiple, confusing blitz packages that allow the linebackers to get free runs at the quarterbacks and runners on rushing plays. In the middle of it all is London Fletcher, a free agent signing in the offseason who has brought a ferocity to the Redskins defense that was missing in recent years. He is flanked by Marcus Washington, one of the most underrated young stars in the league, and second-year man Rocky McIntosh. McIntosh was lost for the season last week, so the Vikings could be exploiting his young replacement. Washington is the man to watch because he has tremendous athletic ability and is the playmaker of the middle of the Redskin defense.
The secondary had two of the league's best safeties in rookie LaRon Landry and former first-rounder Sean Taylor. But, as fans know by now, Taylor was gunned down in a senseless robbery tragedy earlier this month and he has been an emotional focal point for the team, but his loss leaves a huge void in the Washington defense. His place has been taken by second-year understudy Reed Doughty, who is a clear step down since other potential backup Preston Prioleau is injured and a question mark for Sunday's game. Look for the Vikings to attack Doughty over the top or with play action to try to open things up in the deep passing game. At the corners, Fred Smoot has reclaimed his career by returning where it all began. Given a chance to be a true No. 2 corner behind veteran Shawn Springs, Smoot has thrived with the Redskins again and has erased his bad memories of Minnesota. Former starter David Macklin provides a veteran nickel back who can make plays when called upon and gives the Washington defense another weapon to work with.
With a pair of old-school coaches like Gibbs and Brad Childress, don't be surprised to see both teams try to establish the run and eat time off the clock. With so much at stake, keeping mistakes to a minimum is critical and both teams will need to be at their best to make it work for them as they make a run for the playoffs. A repeat of last year's 19-16 games isn't out of the realm of possibility, so it well could be nail-biting time as one team continues its upward climb to the playoffs and the other suffers a debilitating blow for the same quest.
Preview: ‘Must-Win' Applies
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