The Washington Redskins enter their most difficult stretch of the season -- on paper, at least -- feeling good about how they've played and where they're headed. But they also enter with serious health issues that could have an impact on how they emerge from this five-game stretch.
They have a new, inexperienced kicker (Nick Rose). They lost an excellent rookie defensive lineman (Jonathan Allen) for at least several weeks and possibly much longer. Their starting corners (Bashaud Breeland and Josh Norman) both are uncertain for Monday because of injuries. Their starting running back (Rob Kelley) has his own health issues after missing last week with an ankle injury and leaving another game with a rib problem.
It's not as if Washington hasn't played a hard schedule to date: They've already played Philadelphia, the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City (and also Oakland, when the Raiders were 2-0 and playing well). At 3-2, the Redskins have a shot to contend all season. But they'll have to get through this stretch in good shape. Each of these games are against NFC teams, so the tiebreaker implications are huge:
• At Philadelphia (5-1): The Eagles beat Washington in the opener, so for the Redskins to seriously challenge for the division, they need to win this game. The problem for the Redskins: The Eagles have a legitimate passing attack, so the banged-up secondary will be an issue. The Redskins have good depth, but a lot of it is young and inexperienced. If there are coverage breakdowns against a scrambling quarterback such as Carson Wentz, then there are issues. It happened a couple times in the opener, leading to big plays.
The Redskins will need Kelley back for this one to give their run game a boost (they hope). But he was available in the opener and the Eagles held him to 30 yards on 10 carries. Philadelphia applied more pass-rush pressure against Washington than any other team this season.
Difficulty rating: 4. The Redskins have won here and are familiar with the Eagles. But given the health issues and the way Philadelphia is playing, it will be a big challenge.
• Dallas (2-3): The Cowboys swept the Redskins last season, but they aren’t playing as well for a variety of reasons. Let’s assume Ezekiel Elliott will play in this game; he’s the guy they worry about most because of his ability to control the offense. However, quarterback Dak Prescott ’s mobility and poise, among other qualities, helped in both wins over Washington. As with Wentz, the Redskins have had problems against a mobile quarterbacks this season.
But Dallas’ defense isn’t good: After five games, the Cowboys have allowed 41 more points than they had a year ago. That’s where Washington will have to take advantage.
Difficulty rating: 3. It’s at home, so that should help (though it didn’t last year). Also, Dallas’ defense is worse, so that definitely helps. Not having Allen here, against this offensive line, definitely hurts.
• At Seattle (3-2): The Seahawks have won 28 of their past 34 home games so, yeah, there’s quite a difference where you play them (the Seahawks are 4-6-1 on the road, dating to last season). Again, mobile quarterbacks hurt the Redskins, and Seattle has Russell Wilson. The Redskins like taking shots downfield vs. Seattle’s Cover 3 look, but the key will be whether or not they complete those throws with the same efficiency as they have in the past. So far, they haven’t.
Difficulty rating: 5. The Seahawks just don’t lose at home. Winning here would be quite an achievement.
• Minnesota (4-2): This game always looked tough on the schedule because the Vikings will play good defense and because Sam Bradford appeared to be a good fit in their offense. Then Bradford was injured and rookie running back Dalvin Cook was hurt and it appeared to be an easier game. But they've won two straight, though against Chicago (2-4) and Green Bay in a game where Aaron Rodgers was hurt. Still, they’re somehow making it work with quarterback Case Keenum (five touchdowns, one interception in four starts). He gets rid of the ball fast and doesn’t make killer mistakes. That, combined with their defense, has been a big plus. Receiver Stefon Diggs, who missed last week with a groin injury, caught 13 passes for 164 yards against Washington last season.
Difficulty rating: 3. The Vikings’ defense is terrific. But how long can they keep winning with Keenum?
• At New Orleans (3-2): This game looks much harder than it did when the season began. The Saints went 4-4 at home each of the last two seasons, so it’s not as playing in the Superdome is a terrific home field advantage. But it becomes a lot harder when they’re playing well, having won three in a row. The defense overall has shown improvement but statistically still struggle: The Saints are 26th in yards per game, 21st in points allowed and 32nd on third downs. They’ve allowed 29 or more points three times. They do rush the passer well. But will the defense ever be consistent? Or will the Saints fall flat because the defense eventually is too much to overcome? However, with upcoming games vs. the Rodgers-less Packers and then Chicago, the Saints have a legitimate chance to build momentum.
Difficulty rating: 3.5. They’re not playing as well as the Eagles, but this game has gone up a notch simply because they are winning right now with a chance to build a nice winning streak. Skepticism remains, but that could be gone by the time this game rolls around.