LANDOVER, Md. -- The Washington Redskins entered Monday night controlling their playoff fate. It sounds a bit silly now. The last thing the Redskins looked like Monday was a team deserving of the postseason.
Their 26-15 loss to the Carolina Panthers wasn't about effort. It was about being handled on both sides of the ball. It was about making mistakes you just can't make if you're in the hunt for a playoff spot. A tight end throwing a punch inside the 10-yard line and getting ejected -- with your team driving for a possible touchdown? Inexcusable.
If Washington's performance on Monday was all that someone had seen of the Redskins this season, the easy conclusion would be that this franchise is 7-6-1 but with a long way to go. To make the postseason, they need to win their last two and hope Tampa Bay and Green Bay both lose once more or Detroit loses twice.
"I hate being in this position," Redskins defensive end Ricky Jean Francois said. "We controlled our own destiny and now we need help. We put ourselves in that hole and now we have to dig out of it."
It's not as if they've been beaten up all season, even by the top teams -- they've played well at times. But here's the reality: They have a defense that needs talent guided by a coordinator who hasn't yet proven he can develop a top unit (or even a top-half one); they have a quarterback in Kirk Cousins who picked the wrong game to have arguably his worst night of the season.
He missed high, wide and low and failed to see some open receivers. Cousins certainly can -- and must -- play better. But Monday? He wasn't good.
Really, though, this was a pick-your-poison game. The Redskins' defense provided little resistance, though it did force Carolina into four field goals of 35 yards or fewer. But Washington's defenders missed too many tackles, and there are too many players who are fill-ins and not part of any future here. How bad was it? At a time when the defense knew Carolina was going to run the ball late in the game, Washington allowed running back Jonathan Stewart to run 34 yards -- almost all of it untouched. The Panthers gained 148 yards on the ground, compared to 29 from Washington. That can't happen.
"We're too good to be playing like this on a national stage," said end Chris Baker, knowing the Redskins lost by 22 in the season opener on a Monday night.
The talent has been a big problem. You can change the coordinators, and I won't fight you, but you must improve the talent base. The Redskins have an aging safety who can't run while trying to stay deep. The result: Ted Ginn Jr.'s 30-yard touchdown catch over former high school teammate Donte Whitner. The Redskins don't get consistent pressure, and they leave too many gaps in coverage. A tough combo.
Carolina has played better of late, having won four of its past seven games. Its defense remains solid despite numbers that suggest a bad season. But the Redskins had just regained control of their playoff fate before the game, yet it was the Panthers who played with seemingly more energy.
"We were flat out-coached," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. "There's no question about that. We weren't as ready as I would have liked to have been. We didn't execute like I would like to have seen. That falls on my shoulders."
The Redskins dropped too many passes -- even receiver Pierre Garcon suffered his first of the season. Trailing by two touchdowns, and with the Redskins inside the Panthers' 10, Jordan Reed was upset with safety Kurt Coleman holding onto his arm after a play. That led to a punch. That led to a 15-yard penalty and an ejection. And that led to the end of a possible touchdown drive.
"We definitely missed him out there," Redskins receiver DeSean Jackson said. "We definitely needed him. ... He just made a mental mistake in the heat of the moment."
When you're fighting for a playoff spot, you can't afford such plays. When you have a defense that doesn't make plays, you can't afford two turnovers -- the Redskins gave up 10 points off turnovers.
It's not as though the Redskins still can't make the postseason. I thought they’d go 3-1 in their last four games, and now they've gotten the one loss out of the way. But they'll have to play much better if they want to avoid defeat.