The Washington Redskins returned from their bye week talking about their prospects of reassembling a season that had seemed broken, perhaps beyond repair, when the intermission began.
The cause for optimism at Redskins Park isn’t necessarily tied to the team’s play. The Redskins, after all, lost their final three games before the bye to drop their record to 3-6. Instead, the hopeful talk is based on a glance at the Redskins’ schedule. They play their next three games against NFC East foes.
“It’s pretty unbelievable that we’re right in the middle of everything right now at 3-6,” tight end Chris Cooley said. “You would think it’s about the end of the year. But we win some games and we’re just fine. So we have to take it one at a time and we have to get on some kind of a roll. But it’s nice to be playing for something. And we’re fortunate to be playing for something.”
The Redskins host the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday at FedEx Field, followed by a Thanksgiving game at Dallas and a Monday night game at home Dec. 3 against the New York Giants. In all, the Redskins play five of their seven remaining games against NFC East opponents, closing the season by playing at Philadelphia on Dec. 23 and at home against the Cowboys a week later.
It is a less-than-daunting lineup of opponents, at least at the moment. The Giants are the defending Super Bowl champions and won six of their first eight games. But they’re on a two-game losing streak that has left them at 6-4, and quarterback Eli Manning’s recent struggles have prompted speculation that he has a tired arm.
The Cowboys are in second place after a victory over the Eagles, but are only 4-5. The Eagles are on the first five-game losing streak of Andy Reid’s coaching tenure. They’re tied with the Redskins for last place and appear likely to give rookie quarterback Nick Foles his first NFL start against the Redskins, with Michael Vick recovering from a concussion he suffered Sunday.
“Obviously their struggles have allowed us to still be in it mathematically,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said after the Redskins’ first post-bye practice Monday. “So we’ve got to go out and take it week by week, game by game, and win the ones we should win and everything will take care of itself. And we might have an outside shot to go to the playoffs.”
Of course, playing the Redskins right now probably is a cause for optimism for their opponents as well. Their 3-3 start to the season is a fading memory. Their loss at home to the Carolina Panthers, who were 1-6 entering the game before the Redskins’ bye week, led to several days of consternation over whether Coach Mike Shanahan was giving up on the season. Shanahan said after the game that the remainder of the season would be about seeing who “is going to be on your football team for years to come.”
Shanahan said in the days that followed that he wasn’t throwing in the towel. Then the team’s coaches and players parted ways for five days before reassembling Monday, when Shanahan said his players seemed re-energized.
“I think everybody was refreshed and I think they’re looking forward to the second half of the season,” Shanahan said. “You can see they were a lot fresher, rejuvenated and hopefully ready to go.”
Veteran wide receiver Santana Moss said he didn’t necessarily see rejuvenation, but never sensed a widespread loss of hope before the bye.
“The only thing that I stay away from is what people write and say,” Moss said. “That’s what they’re paid to do and that’s what their job consists of. But we’re the one that has to go play. So at the end of the day, every time I step on the field, there’s a chance. And right now we still have a chance.”
The team’s coaches, Shanahan said, used the bye week to begin preparing for the Cowboys game because the team will play Dallas four days after facing the Eagles. But the Redskins players will focus solely on the Eagles game this week, Shanahan said.
The team has “a great opportunity” thanks to its NFC East-heavy schedule, he said.
“You’ve got to get ready for your second half of the season,” Shanahan said. “You’ve got to play your best football. We’ve had some opportunities in the first half and we haven’t closed a couple of those games. Now there’s no [margin for] error.”
The Redskins could be buoyed this week if safety Brandon Meriweather and wide receiver Pierre Garcon are able to return. Meriweather said he hopes to play Sunday after missing all season because of a knee injury. Garcon’s return appears less certain, but he tested his ailing foot during Monday’s practice and reiterated that he hopes to avoid season-ending surgery for a torn ligament.
The Redskins’ most realistic path to the playoffs could be winning the NFC East. That could turn out to be less difficult than chasing down the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings or Seattle Seahawks, the current front-runners for the NFC’s two wild-card playoff berths.
“We know them,” Alexander said of the Redskins’ division opponents. “It really doesn’t matter how people rank them, the power rankings or whatever . . . There’s no mystique factor like you might get playing a team that’s out of your division, like the Patriots or Green Bay Packers. We’re very comfortable and we know we can go out and compete with these guys.”