ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Redskins are in first place. Let that sink in for a minute. OK, they’re only 5-6 and have plenty of work to do in their rebuild. But they have a shot at winning the NFC East for five reasons.
Because it's a bad division. A 5-6 record would leave them at least three games out of first place in every other division in the NFC. They’d even be a game out of first place in the AFC South. But that shouldn't matter to the Redskins; all they must do is finish ahead of the three other teams in this division. Dallas is 3-8 and minus quarterback Tony Romo for the rest of the season. The Redskins play them twice, including Monday night at home. They also play once more against Philadelphia, which has allowed 90 points combined the last two games. And the Eagles play at New England Sunday and still have to host Arizona. The Giants have a banged-up offensive line, a bad defense and no run game. So, yes, the division remains a key element in Washington’s contention.
Leadership. When general manager Scot McCloughan and coach Jay Gruden were looking to add players this offseason, they did so with a big eye on changing the culture. They needed stronger leaders. That’s what they found in players such as safety Dashon Goldson, end Ricky Jean Francois and nose tackle Terrance Knighton. They haven’t been afraid to express their thoughts, either. Here’s what veteran corner Will Blackmon said of Goldson: “He does a good job critiquing every player in the room. You may not like it at the time, but he’s trying to help you get better.” Goldson called a players-only meeting Saturday night just to allow himself -- and many others -- to say whatever they needed. They have plenty of flaws, but every time the Redskins have been in position to save their season they have done so with a spirited effort. They haven’t beaten a team that currently has a winning record, but they’re 5-2 against teams with losing records. That leadership and mindset will make a difference in the final five games.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins. He's already done more than what some of his critics predicted once he was named the starter ahead of Robert Griffin III. Cousins has won two NFC Offensive Player of the Week awards, and, yes, he’s also had his share of bad games. In fact, he’s probably played an equal amount of good and bad games. But he’s 5-1 at home where he has the eighth best QBR and third best passer rating. On the road he has the 29th best QBR and 30th best passer rating. But Cousins can run the offense and has done so with growing efficiency. In the last five weeks he leads the NFL with a 111.5 passer rating (his QBR, which takes into account more factors, puts him 12th). He’s hitting open receivers and executing plays. Cousins has stabilized the position. There is no drama surrounding him and that’s a welcome change in the locker room where, yes, they like that.
The schedule. They play three games against Dallas and Philadelphia and their other two games are at Chicago and home against Buffalo. It’s not hard to see them winning three of their remaining five games. That might be enough to win the division. Since 2008, there have been five teams to win their division with only seven or eight wins. To get there, the Redskins will have to win at least one or two road games -- they’re 0-5 away from home. But of their first five road games, only one team (the Giants) currently has a losing record. Of their last three, all have a losing record. In fact, they don’t play any team the rest of the season that currently is better than 5-6. Also, all five of their remaining opponents rank in the bottom 14 defensively in yards per carry. That will help. Look at some of the quarterbacks they face down the stretch: Matt Cassel (twice), Tyrod Taylor and Sam Bradford/Mark Sanchez.
Coaching. The Redskins have lost six starters to season-ending injuries, but they’ve overcome them in part due to an improved mindset and growing confidence, good finds such as Blackmon and an offense that gets players open. Also, Gruden has taken care of the veterans with days off -- notably Jason Hatcher. He’s still playing solid ball despite achy knees because he’s rested. Also, the defense’s ability to tap into the versatility of their players has allowed them to cobble together a secondary. The defense in general has not played well, but they have a chance to help down the stretch. Finally, there's the way the coaches decide to deploy receiver DeSean Jackson, who has played the past four games. In the last three, with him as a legitimate threat, the Redskins have had two of their best games in terms of yards per play and total yards. He’s caught passes of at least 42 yards in those three games.