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Walters: Stayin' Alive

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Old 12-16-2005, 11:44 AM   #1
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Walters: Stayin' Alive

Stayin’ Alive

It’s never easy to win an NFL game on the road. Whether teams suit up in Houston, Tennessee, or yes, even Arizona, road trips in the NFL are a rather daunting task to undertake. While this may explain much of the Giants’ success this season – what with their schedule that includes roughly 14 home games – it also demonstrates why the Redskins had so much trouble holding off a scrappy Cardinals team Sunday afternoon.

The Redskins’ mid-December tilt with Arizona also showed that there aren’t many more dangerous entities in the NFL than the team that is playing for pride. When you consider that the Cardinals have only one winning season in their last two decades of football, it is easy to see that this team is nothing if not desperate. That feeling was demonstrated quite clearly as the perennial loser Cardinals fought harder than the third monkey at Noah’s Arc against Washington, only to come up typically short.

The Redskins would prove too much for the Cardinals, but they would have to pull out all the stops to do so. Kick returner turned jobless ex-football player turned kick returner Antonio Brown’s 91-yard kickoff return provided Washington with the eventual game-winning touchdown, proving that the microscopic Brown was actually a very good microcosm of the Redskins season as well. Just like the Redskins status in the playoff hunt, Brown is barely hanging on, earning his place in the mix on Sundays by his performances in the Sunday prior. Perhaps, too, this story, which seems like redemption for Brown given his early season struggles, will prove to be a window into things to come for a franchise whose once proud winning ways have dissolved into a need for redemption almost as great.

Like the dog that periodically still relieves himself in the house, the Redskins are a team that you simply can’t stay mad at. Of course, they also make you want to pull your hair out at times, but true devotion runs deeper than hair follicles. Just when Redskins fans think things couldn’t get much worse – like when the team folded down the stretch in three straight games – Washington reels off two clutch wins in a row on the road and resuscitates a season that had been on life support.

Ironically, for most of the season, it was harder for Washington to create turnovers than it was for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to smile through his Botox injections. Redskins fans were left only to wonder where their team might be if only they could occasionally swipe the ball from their opponent. That question was answered when Washington forced four Arizona turnovers in a little over one quarter Sunday. The answer, of course, was down 10-3.

Normally, four turnovers in such a short time span results in a blowout of 49er proportions. But when you factor in that Mark Brunell had his worst game of the season, and joining him in his futility was the normally reliable Chris Cooley, things don’t always turn out as they should. The Redskins nearly matched Arizona’s incompetence by committing three turnovers of their own, all on Mark Brunell interceptions.

But in the same spirit of their call for more dependence on the running game, the offensive line and their main beneficiary, Clinton Portis, were seemingly unwilling to allow Washington to essentially end their season in the desert sunset. The line and their running game seemed to hoist the team on their collective backs and carry, or drag in Mike Sellars’ case, the team as far as it needed to go. Portis’ second 100 yard game in as many weeks, this time in the face of an aggressive, attacking Cardinals defense, was the Dirtbags at their grinding best.

As many games often have, the Redskins’ 17-13 victory in Arizona came down to a single defining moment. While the kickoff return did give the Redskins their ultimate margin of victory, and Clinton Portis clutching to Mike Sellars as if he were skiing behind him were critical plays for Washington, the moment of truth came much later in the game. It was third and six, and visions of yet another failure on behalf of the offense to convert a third down to kill the clock danced in the minds of the largely partisan Redskins crowd. To assure that at least some additional time would be bled from the clock, Joe Gibbs called for another Portis run. Portis, who seemed to be stopped well short of the line to gain, kept surging forward, and, with the help of every Redskin offensive lineman this side of George Starke, cross the first down line and effectively ended the game.

While the Portis run proved to seal the deal, two earlier plays set the stage for Portis to close it out. The first, given my personal history of criticism of him, should be mentioned if for no other reason but fairness. Ade Jimoh, who normally covers receivers about as well as water covers the Arizona horizon, jumped on a screen pass to Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald on a third a short, throwing the league’s second leading receiver for a one yard loss. I would have expected John Kerry to say something interesting before I would have thought that Jimoh could make a play of this magnitude, but I was wrong – at least about Jimoh.

However Jimoh’s play would have been nothing more than a film room bright spot had Sean Taylor not scared the living hell out of Cardinals tailback J.J. Arrington on the subsequent fourth down try. On what was a rare Arizona run, Arrington took the pitch from Brenda Warner’s husband and seemed primed for an epic collision with the truck wearing number 21. But in a move which as criticized in football circles as it was hailed in osteopathic circles, Arrington tried to plant his head ostrich-style into the turf to avoid the oncoming Taylor. The play itself was perhaps the best example of the growing reputation Taylor has formed in his brief NFL career, one that has Arrington, and many others like him, exercising caution when it comes to potential collisions with the bull in safety’s clothing.

The game ball this week goes to defensive back Pierson Prioleau, whose performance epitomized the chameleon-like status that many of the Redskins defensive players possess. Prioleau, a safety by trade, was forced into considerable action at corner Sunday with the injury to veteran Walt Harris. Despite playing perhaps the league’s best group of receivers, Prioleau was able to hold his own, while recording seven tackles, and sacking Kurt Warner while simultaneously forcing and recovering a fumble. Prioleau has stepped up in the past few weeks, and figures to be a key component of the secondary down the stretch with injuries to the secondary piling up late in the year.

But the last two weeks have been merely a buildup for the three week stretch that lay ahead for Joe Gibbs and his Redskins. That is especially true for this week, known in Redskins circles simply as Cowboys Week. For the first time in years, this week of weeks actually holds playoff implications for both teams. While the Redskins fans may enjoy hanging their hats on Washington’s dramatic Monday Night win in Irving earlier in the year, the fact still remains that Dallas has owned Washington over the last few seasons. That one win was a big step in healing those old wounds, but sweeping the hated Cowboys – for the first time since 1995 – would really strike a decisive blow into the rivalry’s storied past. A win would officially vault the Redskins ahead of Dallas in both the division and the playoff hunt, while a loss would start the countdown to September 2006.

Sunday is in many ways a day of truth for the Redskins. They most certainly have improved from last season, but the degree to which they’ve left their futility behind them is still yet unknown. Sunday’s game against Dallas is the biggest game for the Redskins this millennium. It is one that the team has to have, for this season, and for the greater fight to regain their status as one of the premier franchises in the NFL.

Check back in next week for your Redskins football fix. Hail to the Redskins!

Questions and comments can be sent to Trevor Walters at skins.fan@comcast.net

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