LANDOVER, Md. (AP) — The Washington Redskins have endured six close losses, several ugly wins, season-ending injuries to five starters, a four-game losing streak and the death of a teammate.
Yet here they stand, needing only to beat a team short on motivation to make the playoffs.
They are the NFL equivalent of a golfer who has to sink the simple 5-foot putt after struggling through wind, rain, a sand trap and a broken club just to get the ball on the green.
“Those putts are hard,” linebacker Marcus Washington said. “You can’t relax. You’ve got to go through your technique and go through everything. That’s how this week is going to go; it’s not going to be any different.”
In other words, now is not the time to blow it, not after all they’ve been through. Unbeaten since the funeral of safety Sean Taylor and with a focus that would have been unimaginable at the start of the season, the Redskins (8-7) will attempt to complete a sweep of what has essentially become four must-win games when they host the Dallas Cowboys (13-2) on Sunday.
“After the funeral, I think we got a lot of closure and we moved forward,” defensive end Phillip Daniels said. “I think everybody wanted to move forward and do it for him. After this last game, instead of thinking about Christmas, everybody was thinking about Dallas.”
The Redskins can also clinch if Minnesota and New Orleans both lose — and, given the state of the NFC, that might be a more fitting way to end the regular season — but coach Joe Gibbs is fed up with scoreboard watching and wants his players to earn their spot on the field.
“If we don’t do it ourselves, we are going to be in real trouble,” Gibbs said. “You have to do it yourself. I would never look at the scoreboard and think someone else is going to help me. For me, it has never worked and it is not going to work this time.”
The Cowboys, meanwhile, have secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Sure, there’s the motivation of getting a club-record 14th win or breaking a few other team or personal records, but the more important goal is to win the home playoff game — which could be a rematch against the Redskins — on the weekend of Jan. 12-13.
Coach Wade Phillips has been cagey out his approach, but he said it’s safe to assume that anyone considered questionable from an injury standpoint won’t be playing this Sunday.
“Say if I do twist my ankle in this game, obviously, I don’t think you will see the trainers send me back out there,” linebacker Greg Ellis said. “I don’t think you do that because we have to be responsible and mature about the situation.”
These two rivals have acted out a similar scene before. In 1996, the Redskins desperately wanted to win the final game played at RFK Stadium, and the Cowboys didn’t want to get anyone hurt because they had clinched their playoff seed. Dallas lost 37-10 fielding a B-team minus Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith.
This year, it’s Tony Romo and Terrell Owens who are expected to do more spectating than watching.
Owens, who scored all four touchdowns in the 28-23 win over Washington at Dallas on Nov. 18, is definitely out with a sprained ankle. Romo, who has been nursing a bruised thumb, has been lobbying to play the entire game, but it’s not hard to read between the lines and prepare for the sight of backup Brad Johnson throwing his first passes of the season.
“I definitely anticipate playing some,” Romo said. “To what extent, it’s up to the coaches.”
Perhaps the best stimulus for the Cowboys — the starters and the backups — is that no one in Dallas ever wants to make anything easy for the Redskins.
“The thing that works into our favor is that it’s a rival game,” Ellis said. “Every time you step on the field as a football player, obviously you want to do your best. But the rivalry that Washington and Dallas have against each other kind of negates the fact that we can’t improve our playoff standings.”
Actually, anyone who hadn’t followed the teams during the regular season would think the Redskins were the team holding back. They’re having to make do without Jason Campbell, Randy Thomas, Jon Jansen, Carlos Rogers, Rocky McIntosh and Taylor.
But, at least this week, they have two big advantages: momentum and incentive.
“The feeling now, it’s real good,” receiver Antwaan Randle El said. “We’re playing well — when everybody expects us to just get shellacked. For us, we understand, ‘Yeah, we’re doing good, but we’ve got to keep going.’ We can’t get too high up on the horse.”