The lesson of the previous two NFL postseasons is that the playoffs aren’t necessarily about which team is best. They’re about which team is the hottest.
The Washington Redskins say they paid attention to that and learned their recent history well. As they prepare to enter the playoffs on a seven game winning streak that carried them to an NFC East title, they say they think they’re positioned to make some noise in the postseason.
“I think we got hot at the right time, the second half of the year,” defensive end Stephen Bowen said after after last Sunday’s 28-18 triumph over the Dallas Cowboys, which gave the Redskins their first division crown since the 1999 season. “We’ve just got to keep believing in each other and just getting it done and just playing out our game plan to perfection like we’ve been doing.”
As the NFC’s fourth seed, the Redskins play host to the fifth-seeded Seattle Seahawks in a first-round playoff game today that they hope will put them in the footsteps of last season’s New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers of 2010. Those teams managed to barely squeeze into the playoffs, then kept winning on their way to Super Bowl triumphs.
“We have a chance to be that team,” Redskins tight end Chris Cooley said. “But everyone’s hot. Seattle is hot right now. There are a lot of good teams in the NFC. The thing that I think is that we’ve had to win every single game since 3-6. That’s the way it’s played out. It bodes well for us. We’ve embraced that. We’ve looked at it like everything’s an elimination game. And it’s elevated our level of play.”
Last season’s Giants beat the Cowboys in the final Sunday night game of the regular season to win the NFC East, just as this season’s Redskins did. Those Giants, like these Redskins, were the NFC’s fourth seed for the playoffs.
The Giants won their final two games to finish the regular season with a modest record of 9-7. Their play improved steadily from there, and they won three NFC playoff games before beating the New England Patriots to secure a second Super Bowl title for coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning.
In the 2010 season, the Packers were a wild-card team and the sixth— and final— seed in the NFC playoffs. They went on the road to Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago to beat the three top seeds in the NFC playoffs on their way to their Super Bowl victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
NFL teams annually spend the regular season chasing the first-round playoff byes that go to the two top seeds in each conference. This season, that’s Denver and New England in the AFC and Atlanta and San Francisco in the NFC.
But should that be the goal? Though statistically a high seed and a bye are helpful, five of the past seven Super Bowl champions have played in the first round of the playoffs. That includes the Steelers in the 2005 season, the Indianapolis Colts in the ’06 season, the Giants in the ’07 season, the Packers in the 2010 season and the Giants again last season.
“That can be problematic at times, when the last two weeks don’t matter and then all of a sudden the next game in the playoffs matters incredibly,” Redskins defensive tackle Barry Cofield, who played on the Super Bowl-winning Giants team in the 2007 season, said recently.
“One time we were the number one seed and we got bumped our first game out,” Cofield said. “Sometimes I think it’s hard to turn it on. Being used to that feeling, that ‘win or go home’ feeling, I think is a good thing.”
The Redskins certainly are accustomed to that feeling. They have gone unbeaten since their record dropped to 3-6 with a 21-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Nov. 4. They had the NFC’s longest winning streak entering the playoffs. Only the Broncos, winners of 11 straight games, have a longer winning streak going into the postseason.
“I don’t think we should change anything. I think we should approach the game just like we have these last seven weeks,” said Redskins left tackle Trent Williams. “If we can keep playing how we played, minus some of the mistakes that we made, we’ll be a hard team to stop.”
But the Seahawks, too, are a hot team, with five straight victories entering their first-round matchup against the Redskins. The Redskins at least don’t have to travel to Seattle. The Seahawks were 8-0 at home during the regular season but only 3-5 on the road.
“We know that they’re a very explosive offense, have a great defense,” Williams said. “It’s going to be one heck of a game, I can tell you that.”
The Redskins lean heavily on two rookies, quarterback Robert Griffin III and tailback Alfred Morris. Ted Sundquist, formerly the general manager of the Broncos, said last week that the Redskins face a formidable task because of their youth and the depth of the NFC postseason field.
“It’s a learning process to go through the postseason,” Sundquist said. “A lot of their main players haven’t been through it. The positive for them is they have a coaching staff that has experienced it. It’ll be interesting to see. I think the NFC is loaded.”
The Falcons are the NFC’s top seed. But some in pro football seem convinced that playing a conference semifinal in Atlanta would be preferable to playing one in San Francisco against the second-seeded 49ers. The Falcons were the NFC’s top seed two years ago, only to lose their opening playoff game to the Packers.
The Redskins have had what already qualifies as a successful season, reaching the playoffs with a rookie quarterback. But what they’re after now, they say, is the Super Bowl championship that recent NFL history says is possible.
“That’s the goal,” Bowen said. “Nobody goes into a season thinking, ‘Oh, we just want to make the playoffs.’ The goal is to win, win it all.”