Washington Redskins players and coaches couldn't shake the pit-in-the-stomach feeling after playing to a tie with the Cincinnati Bengals.
A week after a last-minute loss at the Detroit Lions, they went into their bye week 4-3-1 and not quite sure how to feel.
The Redskins sit in last place in the unexpectedly strong NFC East, and uncertainty about situational defense, red zone offense and a four-game suspension to Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams has them feeling uneasy.
''We're not in a great position, but we're not in a bad position right now at 4-3-1,'' linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said.
''We're still over .500 and we know we're still right in the thick of things with the NFC East and we've still got a bunch of NFC East games left. We're right there, we've just got to find a way to get healthy over the bye week and then come back and win some pretty big games.''
Coach Jay Gruden called being in last place ''a little disappointing,'' a description that just about sums up Washington's first half - even after quarterback Kirk Cousins led a four-game winning streak to climb out of an 0-2 hole. The upcoming schedule of games against the Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals makes it a perilous situation.
The climb back to the playoffs is more difficult because the Redskins have to face those four opponents without Williams, suspended four games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. It's Williams' second four-game suspension after serving one in 2011, only this time it'll force Ty Nsekhe into important duty for a crucial stretch.
Keeping the running game clicking without Williams is a substantial challenge, though the bigger one may be splitting up carries between fumble-prone starter Matt Jones, undrafted rookie Robert Kelley, third-down back Chris Thompson and even preseason favorite Mack Brown. Jones missed the Bengals game with a knee injury and even if healthy may not shoulder the load anymore.
''If we had a clear-cut, No. 1 guy, it would be different,'' Gruden said. ''I think we have four really good backs. It's just a matter of you only have one ball.
''We have five, six, seven really good receivers and tight ends and we just have to distribute the ball properly and try to keep everybody off-balance with our running game and passing game.''
Finding balance is all well and good, but the Redskins would really like to find the end zone more. At 40 percent efficiency, they're second-last in the NFL, despite having difficult-to-cover tight end Jordan Reed and receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon to throw to.
''We have to get better in the red zone, without a doubt,'' Gruden said. ''We're not going to concede to anything. We understand the importance of the red zone and converting drives into touchdowns. Whether it's run or pass, we've got to take a long look at it and find our best ways to get the ball to our best weapons down there and convert.''
On the other side of the ball, Washington is 29th in third-down defense. Gruden said that's part of the ''situational football'' the Redskins will try to get better at coming out of the bye.
Effort isn't the question. Execution is.
''I'm sure there will be a lot of things we can correct, but I think the more we play together, the better we are,'' linebacker Will Compton said.
Gruden sees coachable fixes to problems, and Kerrigan believes the Redskins still have their best ahead of them. They have to if they're going to repeat as a playoff team.
''Nothing's going to get easier,'' defensive end Chris Baker said. ''We've got a lot of great opponents coming up, so we've just got to heal our bodies up and get a chance to get away from football this week. Heal up if you've got any injuries and get back and get ready to finish a really tough season.''
Freelancer Zac Boyer in London contributed.
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