Redskins vs. Cowboys: NFC East title on the line at FedEx Field
WASHINGTON (AP) - It has something like the feel of 2005, when someone posted a sign that read "Five in a row or we don't go!" in the locker room.
The Washington Redskins, 5-6 at the time without much of an offense, then somehow rolled off five straight to claim a wild-card berth.
Or maybe it's more like 2007, when the Redskins dropped to 5-7 following a coaching blunder: Joe Gibbs' decision to call back-to-back timeouts, resulting in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That allowed the Buffalo Bills to move much closer to kick a winning field goal.
Nevertheless, riding a swell of emotion in the aftermath of the death of safety Sean Taylor, those Redskins took their next four and again claimed a spot in the playoffs - beating the Dallas Cowboys, of all teams, to finish the job.
But, really, 2012 is something else altogether.
These Redskins were 3-6 on Nov. 4. They had just lost what coach Mike Shanahan had proclaimed a "must win" against the Carolina Panthers, who entered the game 1-6.
And while Shanahan can massage it all he wants - and he's tried to, in many different ways - he clearly no longer had realistic postseason goals when he spoke after that game.
Shanahan said, among other things: "You lose a game like that, now you're playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come."
"He was having a moment of frustration," defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. "But I think the whole team knows exactly where he stands, and where we stand is a testament to that."
Shanahan clarified his remarks two days later, telling the players in the final meeting before the bye-week break that the playoffs remained a possibility. Still, even a veteran like Cofield couldn't envision, say, an NFC East title.
"I thought we needed to win the next game, but I definitely did not look that far in advance," Cofield said. "It was too low of a moment to look and think we could win the division. We wanted to win as many games as possible and hopefully sneak into the playoffs. It was a low point for us. The bye came at a perfect time. We came back and were energized."
So, as it turned out, that Panthers game wasn't a must win. But every game since then has been.
Six victories later, the Redskins (9-6) are definitely not a team playing "for years to come," as the coach put it that November day. They're playing for this year's division championship, attempting to become the first team since the 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars to rally from 3-6 to the playoffs.
What a sight it will be, therefore, when the Redskins and Cowboys (8-7) meet Sunday night, a game flexed to prime time to mark the end of the NFL's regular season.
The winner takes the NFC East. Dallas will be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss. Washington can lose and still get a wild-card spot, but only if the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings lose earlier in the day.
"It is two great franchises playing hard to beat one another, and that is good stuff," Redskins tight end Chris Cooley said.
Shanahan said he will tell his players that it will be a game they'll remember for the rest of their lives. The fact they've been playing on the brink for a month and a half should have them well prepared.
"I think they get used to the pressure," the coach said Monday. "Over the last six weeks, they knew every game was do-or-die, and they're used to that scenario."
The Redskins turned it around by following the leadership of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. His demeanor has lifted the entire franchise and he showed in Sunday's 27-20 win over the Philadelphia Eagles he can win even when he's not as much of a running threat because of a sprained right knee.
There's also rookie running back Alfred Morris, whose 1,413 yards puts him within range of Clinton Portis' franchise record of 1,516. And midseason pickup placekicker Kai Forbath, who had a game ball shipped to the Hall of Fame on Monday after breaking the record for most consecutive field goals to start an NFL career.
The Redskins are no longer the most penalized team in the league - they committed only three against the Eagles - and a defense once on pace to break the NFL record for yards allowed through the air is getting sacks and forcing turnovers.
Washington has exorcised several demons this year. It ended an eight-game losing streak against rookie quarterbacks; a 10-game home losing streak on Monday nights; an 0 for 6 futility against the Cowboys in Thanksgiving games; and a four-year hold on last place in the division.
Now they can clinch their first division title since 1999.
"Everything we've been working for comes back to this weekend, taking advantage of what we've done over the last six weeks," Shanahan said. "It really doesn't mean anything unless we take advantage of our game versus Dallas."
Notes: S DeJon Gomes has a second degree sprain of the MCL in left knee, which could leave the secondary more short-handed than usual for the regular season finale. ... The coaching staff worked extra hours Friday and Saturday nights to get a head start on the Cowboys game plan, allowing the coaches to have Christmas Eve dinner with their families and arrive later for work than usual on Christmas Day.