For all the doom and gloom surrounding Robert Griffin III and a struggling defense, the Washington Redskins after Week 4 are now exactly where they were a year ago: One game out of first place in the NFC East.
Sure, they didn't get win No. 1 this season until Sunday -- and it came against a Terrelle Pryor-less and (shortly into the game) Darren McFadden-less Raiders, but Washington just needed a win, any win, to start reclaiming some of the momentum with which it finished 2012.
Though Griffin's numbers were solid (18-of-31, 227 yards, 1 TD) and he made at least a couple of highly athletic plays, it was a surprising performance from the Washington defense that sparked Sunday's win. Washington actually trailed 14-0 after one quarter (with Oakland's first points coming on a blocked punt), then did not allow another point over the final 45 minutes en route to a 24-14 win.
The Redskins' defense even put up six points of its own, on a 45-yard interception return by David Amerson.
Even more encouraging? Washington took advantage of Oakland's suspect line -- and Matt Flynn's apparent lack of knowledge that he was not standing inside an impenetrable force field -- to rack up seven sacks. Five came in the second half, including arguably the biggest one when Ryan Kerrigan stripped the football from Flynn's hands with Washington clinging to a 17-14 lead. Washington recovered, leading to a Roy Helu Jr. TD run and some breathing room.
Was this performance perfect? Far from it. Washington again was sluggish out of the chute, then lost Alfred Morris to an injury in the second half. And even as Griffin continues to shake off his early-season rust, his offense failed to really find many huge plays.
Still, this was a critical first step. Washington now heads into its bye -- meaning another week for RGIII to further get his legs underneath him and settle in with his offense -- before a Week 6 matchup with Dallas that could be for first place in the NFC East.
The obvious counter-argument here: Had Pryor played, the Raiders might well have dropped Washington to 0-4. Before he started down his seven-sack, two-turnover path, even Flynn fired a TD toss through a gazing Washington secondary.
The NFL does not put asterisks next to wins in favorable circumstances, though, just as the league won't take anything away from Washington's close losses to Philadelphia and Detroit. All that matters to Washington right now is that it secured a victory.
There continues to be more and more evidence that Griffin is inching closer to his old self, too. One play after Kerrigan's forced fumble (and one before Helu scored a dagger of a TD), Griffin escaped heavy pressure in the pocket, managed to escape to his right and fired a dart to Helu for 28 yards. It was at least a glimpse of 2012 Griffin, the quarterback who so electrified the NFL world.
If that play was merely a hint of better things to come, and the Redskins can at all replicate Sunday's defensive effort, that hope is far from lost. After all, the Redskins have been in this position before, a mere 364 days ago. And everything turned out just fine then.