File photo by Reggie Hildred for The Sports Capitol

Slim is enough again for first-place Redskins

BY BRIAN MCNALLY | OCT. 28, 2018

AT TSC HEADQUARTERS — It was not pretty. It almost never is these days for the Redskins, who every week have to scratch and claw their way to a win and did so again in a 20-13 victory against the New York Giants.

But it keeps happening and eight weeks into the NFL season, Washington remains in first place in the NFC East with a 5-2 record. That hasn’t happened since 2008 when Jim Zorn…nevermind. That one didn’t end well and the Redskins are playing so many 50-50 games right now they are bound to lose a couple if this keeps up.

But they won a game on the road against a division opponent and are 5-1 against NFC teams, 2-0 in the division. Only the Los Angeles Rams (5-0) are better in conference.

Is it too early to start thinking about the playoffs? Sure. That still could take 10 wins. Is it too early to note when tiebreakers and other critical factors break their way? Nope. Especially not when three of the next four teams on the schedule – Atlanta (3-4), Tampa Bay (3-4) and Dallas (3-4) – have losing records. Those appear to be winnable games. Of course, in the NFC this year every game can be won or lost. It’s actually banking the wins that matters and so far Washington is doing that.

The lead in the division is 1.5 games over Philadelphia (4-4), which has a bye next week finally, and two games over Dallas (3-4). The less said about New York (1-7) the better. That’s a must-win game at home at FedEx Field on Dec. 9.

But it wasn’t pretty Sunday against the Giants and at some point that will come back to bite the Redskins. They have to score more points. They can’t keep relying on the defense to stop the run every week, as impressive as that group is right now. Injuries dot the roster (Quinton Dunbar, Jamison Crowder). Left tackle Trent Williams (dislocated thumb) was hurt on Sunday. Others are playing through pain. No excuses. Every NFL team deals with this.

Alex Smith (20-for-32, 178 yards, one touchdown) has to play better – or at least raise his game. Hard to see this team winning a playoff game against a good team if it can’t crack 200 passing yards. Smith took shots down field Sunday, but only hit a few deep passes. One near the end zone to Paul Richardson was so off target even the Giants defensive back couldn’t get to it.  

Adrian Peterson has been their rock. His 64-yard touchdown run in a tight game pushed him over the 100-yard mark for the day. It was just the second second-half touchdown in seven games for Washington. Peterson had 26 carries for 149 yards, a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown. There were signs of life from an offense when Smith got the ball to tight end Jordan Reed (seven catches, 38 yards, 12 targets) and Josh Doctson (career-high five catches, 49 yards). Paul Richardson (two catches, 34 yards) looked dangerous down field even if he and Smith only really connected well on a 25-yard pass play early.

If the Redskins can get Jamison Crowder (ankle) back on the field soon and Chris Thompson (knee/rib) fully heals – Thompson returned Sunday after two games out with three carries for 13 yards and two catches for nine yards, but appeared tentative – then they could make a rapid improvement. But Smith must continue to take some risks. Right now he’s protecting the ball well, but Washington is lacking in big pass plays and the points reflect that.

For now, this is the formula. Stop the run again and again, limit breakdowns in the secondary, get pressure on the opposing quarterback and do just enough on offense to win. Next up is a home game against the Atlanta Falcons, who haven’t been very good this year, but have consecutive wins over bad teams like Tampa Bay (34-29) and the Giants (23-20). Sound familiar? The Falcons also have a bye week to prepare so we’ll see if that’s a factor, too. It’s certainly a team that was expected to contend for a playoff spot and should have won the Super Bowl 20 months ago.

Remember, it’s still early. The 2008 team actually won the next week, too, and was 6-2 and cruising to a division title until the wheels came off and they missed the playoffs. The Eagles could get hot. The odds could catch up to Washington with these 50-50 games every week. The ball won’t always doink off the upright like it did late against Dallas. And memories of the New Orleans debacle on Oct. 8 won’t dissipate any time soon. There is fragility to this team that won’t go away until it wins a game decisively.

That happened against Green Bay and Arizona early in the season in large part thanks to the defense. Since then it’s been like watching a mountain climber hang on by his fingertips every week. When will he lose his grip? Not yet for the Redskins, who get two of the next three games at home and a month of winnable games, including at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, to grab a few more wins and really bolster their playoff chances. Win three of those four and a lot more people will believe. The bandwagon will be full.

That hasn’t been this team’s way under Jay Gruden. Washington hasn’t been three games ahead in the loss column since it was 6-3-1 in 2016. That was after the infamous Green Bay game where they blew out the Packers at home on national television on a Sunday night. They missed the playoffs that year, too.

The last time the Redskins were three or more games over .500 was after they beat Dallas in the final game of the 2012 season to clinch the NFC East with a 10-6 record. They ended that season with a seven-game win streak, but then Robert Griffin III got hurt against Seattle in the NFC wild card round at home and, well….you know the rest. This team, against the odds, has given itself a chance. Let’s see what they can do.   

Brian McNally is a senior staff writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. He is also an award-winning multi-media journalist, who has covered the Redskins, Capitals and Nationals for the Washington Examiner, Washington Times and 106.7 The Fan and major events like the Super Bowl, NCAA basketball tournament, Stanley Cup playoffs, NBA playoffs, NFL Combine and NFL Draft.

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