Washington's loss to Carolina throws wrench in its playoff hopes—and possibly its future

0:33 | NFL
Redskins' Monday Night Football woes continue, playoff chances shrink
Tuesday December 20th, 2016

Washington lost a game Monday night it absolutely could not afford to lose. And now? Well, now things get a little tricky.

The Redskins' hopes of a playoff berth are a lot more complicated, for starters, after their disappointing 26–15 loss to a Panthers team that’s all but done in the postseason race and still missing star linebacker Luke Kuechly. Thanks to Dallas's Sunday night win over Tampa Bay, Washington entered the Week 15 finale in control of its own destiny. But to play beyond Jan. 1 now would require a 2–0 finish (at Chicago, vs. the Giants), plus a loss by the Buccaneers (either at New Orleans or vs. these same Panthers).

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That's troubling enough for Washington, which headed into Thanksgiving weekend sitting rather pretty at 6–3–1. Since then, it has taken four losses in five games to send itself spiraling into desperation territory.

But as is the case with any team doomed to walk the playoff tightrope, there are bound to be subplots should the Redskins come up short. Namely, in their case, what does a game like Monday night mean for franchise-tagged quarterback Kirk Cousins? This was another chance, on a national stage in a very important game, for Cousins to continue building his case to be paid like a top-tier quarterback. Instead, he was outplayed by Cam Newton and turned it over twice: a costly interception off a poor read in the early going, and a strip-sack to open the third quarter as Carolina's Wes Horton blew through the blocking of TE Vernon Davis.

Cousins did not always get the requisite help—DeSean Jackson had an easy first-down grab sail through his hands (although two great catches along the sideline later) and RB Chris Thompson also failed to reel in a couple of balls. His run game was non-existent, too, with Robert Kelley held to eight yards on nine carries.

But this hardly was a $100 million-worthy performance by Cousins, against the league's worst pass defense.

"When you go 2-for-13 on third down, it's hard to pin it [on] one area," said Washington coach Jay Gruden. "It wasn't good enough offensively, obviously, the plan wasn't good enough, the execution wasn't good enough.

Gruden also could find himself under more heat moving forward, if his team cannot recover from Monday to sneak back into a wild-card spot. Dan Snyder's presence should make any Redskins coach permanently uncomfortable, but Gruden is now one loss away from his third straight season without a playoff victory (Washington would also finish on the outside looking in if Tampa Bay wins out, or if both the Lions and Packers finish 10–6). His 2015 division title and Cousins's progress ought to buy him more time, but ... you never know.

All of this talk could have been avoided. Washington had its playoff fate in its own hands, needing only to knock off a woefully underachieving Carolina team, at home. Playing for little more than pride, though, the Panthers showed up the Redskins on their own field.

How many examples do you want of how Carolina did it? There was Donte Whitner inexplicably losing Ted Ginn on a first-quarter deep ball, leading to an early TD. And Jonathan Stewart bowling over defenders—and stiff arming those he couldn't run through—en route to 132 yards on 25 carries. Or the Panthers coming up with key plays to move the sticks, time and again, like when Ed Dickson blew through a Will Blackmon tackle attempt on 3rd-and-1 for 28 yards, after Cam Newton delivered the pass despite a hit from an unblocked Trent Murphy.

In short, the Panthers played harder Monday night. They played tougher. And if you're the Redskins, how in the world do you allow that to happen considering the stakes?

Fairness probably demands a reminder here that the Panthers are the defending NFC champions, with the reigning MVP in Newton at quarterback. They played Monday more like the team we saw for much of 2015 and less like the 5–8 outfit they were before pulling off the upset of Washington.

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Still, there are defining moments in every team's season, and this sure felt like one for the Redskins. Putting aside their putrid 2–15  record in Monday Night Football home games heading into their Week 15 matchup, the Redskins had every reason to be confident, from their postseason motivation to the matchup of their deep passing attack against Carolina's suspect secondary.

But nothing played out according to plan. The Panthers' opening drive resulted in a field goal, Washington quickly went three-and-out on the subsequent possession, and the tone was set for the night.

As Gruden was quick to mention, Carolina earned credit for its performance. The Redskins deserve just as much blame. They laid an egg in a critical spot, in the process slipping to the brink of playoff elimination and again opening the door on difficult questions about their future. 

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