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Against all preseason odds, Cousins-led Redskins are NFC East champions

What seemed extremely unlikely before the season started became reality on Saturday night: Kirk Cousins and the Washington Redskins are NFC East champions. 

PHILADELPHIA — The clock struck midnight, and the party commenced in the bowels of Lincoln Financial Field. Inside the musky visitor’s locker room, the men in grass-stained uniforms swarmed to a corner, jostling together as close as they could, and they began to dance. They swung their gray championship hats like props. They dialed the music louder and louder, they captured it on their iPhones. “Get that playoff check bab-y,” a voice in the middle wailed. 

“Nah,” shouted another. “Get that respect, bab-y.” The room roared.

On a dewey Saturday in December, the Redskins defeated the Eagles, 38–24, to capture the NFC East. Washington knocked out two rivals, the Giants and Eagles, with one swoosh, setting up a meaningless Week 17 game with Dallas— a situation Washington has become accustomed to for the better half of this century, only as the pitied participant.

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It is a stunning ascent for a franchise that spent the off-season navigating turnover and tempering expectations; in August, first-year General Manager Scot McCloughan told Sirius Radio, “We’re not going to be the best team out there.” Before the season, Bovada listed Washington at 14–1 odds to win the division. On Saturday, McCloughan stood on the periphery of the locker room. His normally rosy cheeks were extra flushed, and after whispering a few words into receiver DeSean Jackson’s ear, walked to exit, muttering to himself, “Wow.”

Of course, his team is hardly the best team out there. After mortgaging its future on quarterback Robert Griffin III only to reverse course early this season, Washington is led by the plucky Kirk Cousins, and a patchwork roster otherwise depleted by injuries. The Redskins are 8–7 and atop a division that is both hapless and mired by controversy all season. “But,” Jackson says, flashing a grin in the stadium he played for the first six years of his career, “tonight, we are champions.”

Weaving through the room was one of three men to ever quarterback Washington to a Super Bowl. At 6’4”-and-bulky, 60-year-old Doug Williams wears a championship hat with navy jacket, khakis and leather briefcase. In his front office role, his touches over this roster are ubiquitous and undefined, but he knows what it takes to win. “You know what this team is?” says the MVP of Super Bowl XXII. “This is a team that’s peaking at the right time. This is a team that’s coming together at the right time. It feels so good to see a team like this.”

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That begins with Cousins, who has become a folkish hero with his campy, “You Like That!?” outburst, but now has the stats to back it up. Prior to this season, Cousins had a 2–7 record as starter with a touchdown to interception ratio of 18–19.

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Cousins has led the Redskins to a 4–1 record over their last five games, on Saturday turning his seventh 300-yard performance of the season with video-game like numbers (31-of-46 for 345 yards). He has thrown 20 touchdowns to only three interceptions over his last nine.

He threw four touchdowns on Saturday, including two to tight end Jordan Reed, a matchup nightmare and one of coach Jay Gruden’s favorite gadgets. Gruden lines Reed up in the backfield, out wide or as a h-back. In the case of his second touchdown, he went in motion to create a mismatch with linebacker Mychal Kendricks.

Yet after closing the half with a gaffe that felt so Redskins—Cousins taking a knee in the red zone, believing his team had an extra timeout, but forfeiting a chance to build on a 16–10 lead — Cousins defied odds yet again. Washington converted on a third-and-10, third-and-14, third-and-6 and third-and-13—two of those plays for touchdowns.

“We had the debacle at the end of the half,” Gruden says, “And a normal guy could have gone in the tank there. But [Cousins] kept his composure, just as he has all year.”

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Just as the Redskins plowed forward to victory, the Eagles unraveled. Forty seven years ago, they booed Santa Claus here. Surely you have heard the tale of Frank Olivo, the Eagles season-ticket holder who squeezed into a $100 red suit and pasted on an itchy white beard for the finale of a drab 1968 season. With the halftime attraction stranded in New Jersey, organizers plucked Olivo from the stands. Fans pelted understudy Santa with snowballs and heckles, the defining anecdote of Philadelphia’s unsparing fanbase.

Olivo died in May at age 66. In the city’s first Christmas without its infamous scapegoat, those at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday night paid homage. They booed their disgruntled former star, Jackson, and their disgruntled non-star, DeMarco Murray. They booed the officials, as is vogue, and their team’s six first-half offensive penalties, two fumbles, one dropped pass that would have been a touchdown and three more dropped passes that would have been first downs. 

The nightmare after Christmas encapsulated Philadelphia’s season of anguish: quarterback Sam Bradford couldn’t win his first meaningful game in five years and Chip Kelly’s splashy acquisitions were either ineffective (Murray), irrelevant (Kiko Alonso) or sidelined completely (Byron Maxwell). The moribund Eagles marched off after the loss to Washington with barely any fans remaining to boo.

Back in the Redskins locker room, one of McCloughan’s biggest free agent signings, defensive end Terrance Knighton, sat alone in his stall. As his teammates jumped around, the former Broncos team captain took stock of his new team’s fortune.

“This feels so different from my time in Denver,” Knighton says. “They brought in guys like me, Ricky [Jean-Francois] from winning organizations who could help change the culture. We had to work so hard. There were so many nay-sayers. Honestly, nobody thought we’d be able to do it. So there had to be a lot of belief in this locker room, and if not all of us believed it, there was no way we could be where we are now.”