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REDSKINS SEND EAGLES FLYING, CAPTURE NFC EAST

     This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Redskins.  Few in their right mind, including myself, dared to predict playoffs for a team that had won seven games over the past two seasons and would be led by an erratic quarterback.

     But these Redskins fooled us all, didn’t they?

     A 38-24 win over the Eagles Saturday night in Philly clinched the Redskins’ first NFC East title since 2012.  It also marked the first time since 1999 that they will enter the final week of the regular season with a playoff berth secured.  The Eagles and Giants are out of the picture. 

     Now 8-7 with a game left at Dallas next Sunday, the over-achieving unit will host a first-round playoff game against either the Vikings (10-5), Packers (10-5) or Seahawks (9-6).

     In an ecstatic post-game locker room, the victorious Redskins donned baseball caps that said “NFC East Champions” and discussed how it felt to reach such lofty heights and exceed the expectations of so many.

     “It feels great,” said linebacker Mason Foster, who signed as a free agent in late September. “Once I got here, I knew we had a lot of talent, and we were going to put it together. We had the right pieces, it would just take a little bit of time to get things right. Coach (Jay) Gruden, (defensive coordinator) Joe Barry, we all put it together. No matter what happened, injuries, guys kept working, and we made it happen.”

     Mason, who took over as the starter for an injured Perry Riley three weeks ago against the Cowboys, was one of the “no names” on a defense that, while not Carolina-esque, was stingy enough to help fuel the team’s resurgence. He was joined by other unheralded players such as linebacker Will Compton, cornerback Will Blackmon and Quinton Dunbar, a rookie free agent converted from receiver to cornerback in training camp.

      A late signing this season, 10th-year running back Pierre Thomas, had an amazing game against the Eagles with seven catches for 67 yards and four rushes for 22 more.

      Those guys combined with existing talent such as superstar tight end Jordan Reed and solid veteran free agent signings like defensive linemen Terrance Knighton and Ricky Jean Francois, plus draft picks who made major contributions in guard Brandon Scherff, defensive end Preston Smith (three sacks and a force fumble against the Eagles), wide receiver Jamison Crowder and safety Kyshoen Jarrett, to form a team with a wonderful chemistry.

      This is where Scot McCloughan comes in.  He took over as the Redskins’ general manager nearly a year ago after leaving his imprint on championship organizations in San Francisco and Seattle, where the man with a keen eye for talent stockpiled it in droves.  He appears to have the Redskins headed in a championship direction, too, if not this season then in the coming years.

      Francois voiced respect for McCloughan, whose acquisition is probably the best decision owner Dan Snyder has made since buying the team in 1999.  McCloughan has essentially changed the culture of the organization.

     “That man did a lot in his career, not only here, not only in Seattle, not only in San Francisco,” Francois said.  “Anywhere that man goes, he puts teams together.  We got to keep this guy around because this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Next year, he’s going to add more guys to the piece of the puzzle.  All it’s going to do is get stronger and stronger, and this team is going to get scarier and scarier.”

     Then there’s Kirk Cousins, who has elevated his game to become one of the hottest quarterbacks in the NFL.  He had another excellent showing against the Eagles, throwing four touchdown passes for a season-high 365 yards with no interceptions and a 120.3 passer rating.  It was his fifth straight game with a rating of 100 or more.

     Cousins has thrown a remarkable 20 touchdown passes and three interceptions in the past nine games.  With 3,990 passing yards, he’s on the cusp of setting the team’s single-season mark of 4,105 set by Jay Schroeder in 1986.

     Think back to when Gruden tapped Cousins over RGIII to be the Redskins’ starter prior to the season-opener, an incredibly gutsy move if there ever was one.  Nobody could have imagined that a fourth-year quarterback who had struggled to read defenses and threw too many interceptions, some at the most inopportune times, would progress this fast.  But Cousins has guaranteed himself a big pay-day once this season is over.  He also stabilized Gruden’s job.

     “Kirk Cousins has a swagger about himself now,” Francois said. “That was the same guy they said wasn’t going to be a franchise quarterback.  It’s funny how he put his hat on out here, but everybody said he wasn’t a franchise quarterback, he’s not a good quarterback.  It shocks me to say that’s not a good quarterback.  Give the man time to throw and see what he develops into.  He developed into an NFC East champion as a quarterback.”

     The Redskins, winners of three in a row, have gotten hot at just at the right time.  This is when NFL teams want to find their groove so they can carry a lot of momentum into the playoffs.

     That’s why the Redskins should play for the win and not take Dallas lightly in the season-finale.  After all, who wants to be swept this season by the despised Cowboys?

     “I understand I got to enjoy this, but I want Dallas,” Francois said.  “We got to think about the Dallas game.  That’s a great team.  That’s Jerry’s team.  That’s a good team that beat us in our building."



Posted By Mike Richman

COUSINS AGAIN STARS IN DOMINANT WIN OVER BILLS

     Thank you, Kirk Cousins.

     Thank you for making it so obvious that the Redskins shouldn’t be looking elsewhere for a starting quarterback next season and beyond.  It’s obvious that you are that man.

     I had been holding to the belief that it would take an entire season of Cousins starting under center to make an honest assessment of him.  But even with two games left, it’s clear that he’s progressed so much faster than anyone expected, proving that he can be the man to lead this team in the future.

     Cousins added another excellent performance to his growing resume in Sunday’s 35-25 win over the Bills at FedExField.  He completed 22 of 28 passes for 319 yards with no interceptions and tied his career-high of four touchdown passes.  His passer rating of 153.7 was one-tenth of a point shy of his second perfect passer rating this season.  It was his sixth 300-yard passing game of the season, a Redskins team record.  He also ran 13 yards for a score, his fifth rushing touchdown this season.

     The victory put the 7-7 Redskins firmly in first place in the NFC East, a game ahead of both the Giants, who fell to Carolina, and the Eagles, losers to the Cardinals.  The Redskins face the Eagles on Saturday in Philly, where a win will clinch Washington's first division title since 2012.  Who would have this could happen so fast?

     Cousins’ teammates left no doubt afterward that they’ve witnessed an immense growth spurt in the quarterback who once looked dejected with his shoulders sagging after throwing an interception, but now exudes confidence, maturity and an ability to take command.

     “It’s been great, no matter what happens he’s never getting frazzled, he’s always level-headed, center Josh LeRibeus said.  “He was a little soft-spoken earlier in the year, but he’s got a voice now. He takes advantage of it, he gets us all going.  He knows what to do.”

     LeRibeus wants Cousins to remain a Redskin: “Oh, I’d love it. He’s amazing. I love Kirk. I do.”

     Defensive lineman Kedric Golston thinks No. 8 is going to get “constantly better.”

     “He’s gotten better each and every start he’s had,” Golston said.  “It’s his fourth year in the NFL, but as far as starts he’s still a very young player.  But you can see the process of him making big-time plays and allowing his football team to win football games.”

     Cousins was once known as an interception machine with a tendency to throw passes that were picked off at the most inopportune times.  One would expect him to make that fateful mistake.  No more.  He has 11 interceptions this season, but only three over the past nine games.

     He was asked about spending the first three years of his career mostly looking on while Robert Griffin III took almost all of the snaps.

     “Yeah, I think any experience you have is going to make you better, whether it’s a positive experience or a negative experience,” he said.  “I’ve learned from every opportunity that I’ve gotten playing – whether it went well or poorly – learning and trying to grow from it.”

     Cousins has been phenomenal as the Redskins have bolted to huge leads the past two weeks.  In a 24-21 win over the Bears on Dec. 13, he completed 10 of 11 passes on 80- and 93-yard touchdown drives on the Redskins’ first two possessions.  Against Buffalo, he went 13 of 16 on 84-, 71- and 56-yard touchdown drives on Washington’s first three possessions.  Cousins attributed the hot starts to the play calling of offensive coordinator Sean McVay, saying he does a great job of selecting the team’s best 15 to 20 plays and using them early in the game.

     The big question now is whether the Redskins will sign Cousins to a big money, long-term deal before free agency begins in March, place the franchise tag on him, or let him hit the open market, where there will certainly be a high demand for his services.  Cousins will have to decide if he even wants to become a free agent.  Although he’s so comfortable in one system, there’s no guarantee he’ll be as successful with another team.  Just look up the names Matt Flynn and Matt Cassel.

     Before the Buffalo game, CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason LaCanfora reported that Cousins will be back with the Redskins next season, even if they have to sign him using the franchise tag.  LaCanfora attributed his report to “sources with knowledge of the situation.”

     I sure hope Cousins is again wearing the Burgundy & Gold next season.  Franchise quarterbacks are very hard to find.  Just ask the Redskins, where there’s been a revolving door at the position. It’s been 30 years since they had their last one.  His name: Joe Theismann.



Posted By Mike Richman

REDSKINS LOSE MOMENTUM IN NFC EAST IN WILD LOSS TO DALLAS

     Expect the unexpected when the Redskins play the Cowboys and don’t take anything for granted.

      Case in point: With many believing the Redskins would push their fiercest rival further into oblivion this season while continuing their momentum toward an NFC East title, they came up short in aggravating fashion Monday night at FedExField.  Dan Bailey’s 54-yard field goal in the closing seconds gave the Cowboys a 19-16 victory.

     The win served as revenge for the Cowboys after the Redskins embarrassed them before a national television audience on Monday night last season, when back up quarterback Colt McCoy led his squad to a 20-17 win.  This time, Cowboys backup Matt Cassel, subbing for the injured Tony Romo, pulled off the stunner.

     The 5-7 Redskins are now tied with the Eagles and Giants in the NFC East, with the Cowboys breathing new life at 4-8.  The Redskins are still atop the division by virtue of a tiebreaker in divisional record, but that should serve as no consolation for Monday night’s loss, which was painful to watch.  The NFC East is so bad this year that a 6-10 record could be good enough to win the division.

     Where do the Redskins go from here with four games remaining, all against teams now with losing records?  Three of those games are on the road, where they’re 0-6 this season.

     “Everyone needs to have a short-term memory,” linebacker Will Compton said in a despondent post-game locker room.  “We have to move on because this is over with.  We’ve just got to be hard on ourselves.  At the end of the day, we control our own destiny.”

     Defensive end Ricky Jean Francois: “I feel like we’re playing poker.  These last four games are the highest stakes you can get.  We’ve got to do everything in our power.  We’ve got to play Redskin football.  This is where the real test of the NFL comes in.”

     For the Redskins to pass that test, they need to address some serious problems.

      --- In their past two games, they’ve scored only three points off of five turnovers (two interceptions, three fumbles) that gave them possession in opposing territory. That's pitiful. They’re not going to win many games when not capitalizing on those opportunities, but hats off to an opportunistic defense for creating those chances.

     --- The defense has to pressure the quarterback.  Cassel was sacked only once for a loss of two yards and had a lot of time to throw behind the Cowboys' talented offensive line.  He made some big throws as part of a 16 of 29, 222-yard performance.  The Redskins played much of the game without two injured starters on the line, Jason Hatcher and Stephen Paea.

     --- Penalties are crippling the Redskins’ ability to mount scoring drives.  They were penalized nine times for 73 yards against the Cowboys, with an illegal crackback block by receiver Ryan Grant and a pass interference by receiver Pierre Garcon wiping out first downs.  Tight end Jordan Reed, who has committed a slew of penalties in recent weeks, was called for pass interference, erasing a 3rd and 1 situation.  Some of those calls appeared to be petty, but the players took the high road afterward.  “The refs called a hell of a game,” Francois said.  “We can’t get mad at them.  We can only get mad at ourselves.”

     --- The running needs to find a consistent footing.  The Redskins rushed for only 73 yards against Dallas (2.8 average), with Matt Jones tallying a high of 49.  Give credit to the Cowboys’ defense, which appeared to be very quick to the ball for most of the game, but the ability to gain yards on the ground is a must because it keeps defenses honest.  In six of the last seven games, The Redskins haven't even averaged three yards a carry.

     --- Special teams needs to do better.  Almost automatic Dustin Hopkins missed a 43-yard field goal with the chance to put the Redskins up by six midway through the fourth quarter.  Hopkins also failed to force a touchback on a kickoff that Cowboys speedster Lucky Whitehead returned 46 yards, setting up the winning score.  Whitehead returned three punts for 31 yards and two kickoffs for 70, including the 46-yarder.  Then there's Redskins receiver DeSean Jackson, who I'll get to in a minute.

     You can’t put this loss on quarterback Kirk Cousins, who continued to make a solid case for a contract extension (22-31, 219 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT).  He’s thrown no interceptions in his last six home games, the longest home-interception streak by a Redskins quarterback since at least 1960.  He also became the first Redskins quarterback to open a season with a touchdown pass in 12 straight games since Sonny Jurgensen in 1967.  Cousins' lofted a pretty 28-yard pass to Jackson that tied the game at 16 in the final minute.

     Just prior to that, Jackson made a colossal mistake when fielding a punt with the score tied at 9 and less than two minutes left.  As Redskins faithful watched in horror, he tried to find room by running backward and across field, nearly going into his own end zone before fumbling the ball, which Dallas recovered on the Redskins’ 15.  Two plays later, the Cowboys scored to go up, 16-9.  Redskins coach Jay Gruden exonerated him afterward, but if nothing else, this game will be remembered as the "DeSean Jackson Blunder Game."

     Next week, the Redskins find themselves in Soldier Field to face the 5-7 Bears, followed by Buffalo at home and the Eagles and Cowboys again in enemy territory.  Gruden, who's 9-19 in his second season and has won only one road game, talked about the urgency of piecing together back-to-back wins and winning on the road for the first time this season.

     “We’ve shown flashes, good quarters, good games here and there,” he said.  “The great teams, the ones that advance in the playoffs and win Super Bowls, are consistent, and we have not been.  That’s something that is a challenge for us as a coaching staff and players.”



Posted By Mike Richman

REDSKINS IN FIRST IN NFC EAST AFTER WIN OVER GIANTS

     Guess who’s in first place in the NFC East: the Washington Redskins.

      They’re tied with the Giants at 5-6 after beating the G-men at FedExField on Sunday, 20-14. The teams are also even in head-to-head competition, but the Redskins own the tiebreaker because of a better division record, 2-1 vs. 2-3.

      Few would have thought this possible heading into December, a time when the Redskins are usually playing out the string as they enter an offseason of contemplation.

     “It’s cool to be the leader, but I want to be the NFC East champion,” said Redskins defensive end Ricky Jean Francois. “But we’ve got a lot more work to do.

     “We’re in the driver’s seat,” he added. “We’ve got the keys to the car. It’s in our hands.”

     Yes, the Redskins control their destiny with five games left. That’s because they are a drastically improved squad that has emitted encouraging signs in Jay Gruden’s second season. An infusion of young talent brought in by new general manager Scot McCloughan has made a huge difference, as has the arrival of a series of unheralded veterans who have made significant contributions.

     Francois and two other players in their first season sporting the Burgundy and Gold came up big to snap a five-game losing streak to the Giants.  Quinton Dunbar, an undrafted rookie free agent who shifted from wide receiver to cornerback in August, made a clutch interception in the third quarter, diving in the end zone to haul in Eli Manning’s pass on third and goal from the 4.  He also did an admirable job covering Giants superstar Odell Beckham Jr., while filling in for starter Chris Culliver, who is out for the season due to injuries.

     Fellow cornerback Will Blackmon, a 31-year-old veteran who signed with the Redskins in mid-September, intercepted a bobbled pass.  Safety Kyshoen Jarrett, drafted by the Redskins in the sixth round this year, jarred the ball loose with a wicked hit.

     Those guys helped the defense put the clamps on Manning, who has made it a habit of toying with the Redskins.  In addition to intercepting him three times (he’d thrown only six entering the game), the defense recorded three sacks, two by Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, and consistently caused Manning to make wild throws.  He finished 26 of 51 (59.4 percent) for 321 yards with two late touchdowns that erased a 20-0 Redskins lead.

     Gruden praised his defense for playing with great effort.

     “Our defense was flying all over the place, which I love to see,” the coach said.  “We had pressure on their quarterback, we had a great hit by Kyshoen Jarrett.  Dunbar had great coverage in the red zone,  Perry Riley had an excellent interception.  I just like the way I felt the great energy on the sidelines.”

     Manning’s counterpart, Kirk Cousins, was solid.  He completed 20 of 29 passes for 302 yards, with a 63-yard scoring pass on a bomb to DeSean Jackson, who is back in full stride.  Cousins also reached across the goal line for a score on a fourth down play at the end of the first half, giving the Redskins a 17-0 lead.  He was not picked off, although Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie dropped a pass in the first quarter that likely would have resulted in a pick-six.

     Plus, Cousins had ample time to throw and was not sacked due to another solid performance by his offensive line.

     Once again, Cousins and his squad played well at home, where they’re 5-1 this season.  But they’re 0-5 on the road, where they seem to look lifeless.  That’s been the biggest mystery about the Redskins thus far.

     “Well, every game’s different,” Gruden said when asked why the team has had more success at home. We just haven’t handled the road ones very well, obviously, with the turnovers and miscues. Today, we had no turnovers, and you can see how much of an impact that has in a football game.  Can’t put our hand on it but eventually we’re going to have to go on the road and win a meaningful game this year.  But we’re worried about Dallas now.”

     The reeling 3-8 Cowboys are up next in a Monday night game at FedEx on Dec. 7.  With quarterback Tony Romo out for the season, that game is one of at least three the Redskins should win among their final five, with road games against Dallas and the chaotic Eagles being the other two.  The other two games against the Bears at Soldier Field (Dec. 13) and the Bills at FedEx (Dec. 20) are toss-ups, but an 8-8 record may be all the Redskins need to win the NFC East, perhaps the worst division in football.

     “It’s great to be in December and playing for something,” Cousins said.  “We have a big one coming up.  The nature of winning is that it just creates bigger games up ahead.  We’re excited about what we did today, but there is a long ways to go and a lot of football left to be played, and we will be the first ones to tell you that.”



Posted By Mike Richman

Nov. 18, 1985: Theismann's Career Ends With a Break

One of the most grisly scenes ever in sports took place on Nov. 18, 1985. Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor penetrated the backfield, leaped on the back of Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, and bulldogged him down as other Giants converged, shattering Theismann’s right leg in several places. Some 53,000 fans at RFK Stadium, plus millions of Monday night TV viewers, witnessed the horrific play, which left Theismann in agony on the field. Seldom-used backup QB Jay Schroeder stepped in and led the Skins to a 23-21 win. Meanwhile, Theismann underwent a rehabilitation process, and vowed to return for his 13th NFL season in 1986. But his right leg failed to cooperate, and he was forced to retire.



Posted By Mike Richman

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