It seems like a year ago, but only two months have passed since
Jeff George was the Redskins' quarterback, Marty Schottenheimer
was the coach whom his players hated, and the Skins were
embarrassing all those foolish preseason handicappers who had
given them a shot at the playoffs. Playoffs? They'd be lucky to
win a game.
Along with the Jets, the Redskins are riding the NFL's longest
winning streak--four games. This Sunday they're in Philly against
the Eagles, and a victory would get them to 5-5, which in this
strange season would be sufficient to stamp them as playoff
contenders. It's a lovely dream, but first there's the matter of
getting by the Eagles, not an elite team but an outfit that can
make it tough on anyone showing a weakness. Washington over
Philly is an improbable outcome, but so was Washington winning in
Denver, and look how that turned out.
The Skins were down 10-3 at halftime. They'd lost three fumbles
and dropped four passes, and their quarterback, Tony Banks, had
been knocked out with a concussion. Kent Graham--a pickup after
George was released following the second game, a guy who'd been
cut by four teams--was running the show. He hadn't thrown a pass
since last December. Somehow, though, Washington gutted out the
victory. Graham threw two touchdown passes, and the sideline
shots of Schottenheimer, jaw thrust out, sleet coating his hair
and collar, were of a modern-day Ahab, steering his ship to a
vengeful destiny. Never mind the multiple wideouts and frilly
stuff; the Redskins seemed to be saying, We'll pound away with
our 234-pound hammer, Stephen Davis; play stiff defense; and hang
I'm trying, you understand, to build a case for a Washington
upset. The Redskins and Philly have split their series for the
last five years. This year the Vet hasn't been a friendly place
for the Eagles, who've gone 2-3 at home. Do I see an upset?
Afraid not. Whoever winds up as the Washington quarterback, Banks
or Graham, is going to have his hands full with the Eagles' blitz
scheme and the strong coverage behind it. Philly is the pick.
Here was the dilemma facing Bill Belichick, one of the league's
most talented defensive strategists, when the Patriots took on
the Rams on Sunday night. He treated Kurt Warner & Co. to an
exotic collection of blitzes, and for a while that strategy
created problems for St. Louis. However, no quarterback gets to
his hot reads, his blitz-control mechanism, as quickly or
accurately as Warner does. He tore up New England with his
precise flips. But to sit back and play coverage against the Rams
is asking for trouble. So what do you do?
The Bucs came up with a solution when they took St. Louis to the
wire in the NFC title game two seasons ago. They stayed in their
zones, kept everything in front of them and hammered receivers as
soon as they touched the ball. But those were the 1999 Bucs.
This year's Bucs haven't been tackling as well, although they
showed some fire against the Bears last weekend--until Chicago
crossed them up by going deep; then things fell apart. Tampa Bay
faces the Rams on Monday night, and I wouldn't be surprised to
see Mike Martz take the same approach that Chicago did, for a
while, anyway. If the Bucs come out smoking, as they did against
the Bears, I see a narrow Rams victory. If the loss to Chicago
has extinguished the fire, it could be worse.
Quick picks: Patriots over the Saints in Foxboro, if New England
avoids turnovers. The Bears will beat the Vikings in Minnesota.
The Ravens will bounce back against the Jaguars, who don't have
the defensive muscle to do what the Browns did to Elvis Grbac.
Tennessee, seeking revenge, still has problems with Pittsburgh's
rush, so I'll give this one to the Steelers. San Francisco is a
young team given to inconsistencies, but I still like the 49ers
in a mild upset over the Colts. Finally, here's an intriguing
matchup: Raiders versus Giants. Two weeks ago the Seahawks gave
the world 319 reasons why you can run on Oakland, and though that
will surely be on the Giants' minds, I don't see it happening
again. The Raiders get my vote.