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In a muddled NFC, why not the Redskins?

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Bob Youngentob for NBC Sports Washington

In a muddled NFC, why not the Redskins?

That sound you hear could be a door opening for the 2017 Redskins.  

Aaron Rodgers is injured. The Cowboys were struggling with Zeke Elliott in the lineup and he may not play until after Thanksgiving. Seattle’s defense has been strong but their success could be limited by a weak offensive line. The Falcons are still haunted by blowing a huge lead in the Super Bowl.

The Eagles, who are the only one-loss team in the NFC, currently have the best record in the conference and they are playing well. The Redskins get a shot at them Monday night. A win would put them in excellent shape.

The Redskins are one of eight NFC teams that have two losses. Of the others, the Packers could well be heading south without Rodgers behind center. The Redskins have beaten the Rams and they will get their shot at the Seahawks, Vikings, and Saints in the coming weeks. The other teams with two losses are the Falcons and Panthers. And the Redskins will get a chance to make the Eagles a two-loss team on Monday.

It is early in the season but not too early for the Redskins to take a look around and think about not only getting into the playoffs but doing some damage when they get there.

MORE REDSKINS: MUST-SEE PHOTOS FROM REDSKINS 26, 49ERS 24

They are a well-balanced and effective team on offense. This stat will shock many—The Redskins have just about as many rushing attempts as pass attempts. The play selection is 158 passes and 149 runs, a pass-run ratio of 51 percent to 49. Washington is sixth in the NFL in total offense and 11th in offensive DVOA.

Their defense is not dominant but it has improved. They have been fighting injuries; just when it looks like they may get Josh Norman back from a broken rib, Jonathan Allen goes out with a Lisfranc injury. They are 12th in total defense in terms of yards but they are fourth in defensive DVOA.

That doesn’t look like it adds up to a Super Bowl team but, as noted, it’s still early. The Redskins still have time to improve. Here is some low-hanging fruit they could grab over the next month.

Get another receiver or two involved in the offense—It’s kind of cool that running back Chris Thompson is leading the team in receiving yards with 340 and that 33-year-old tight end Vernon Davis is second with 225. But the Redskins’ offense could be much more productive if another pass-catcher can string together some big games. Between Terrelle Pryor, Jamison Crowder, Josh Doctson, and Jordan Reed, one or two could be on the verge of breaking out.

Get Rob Kelley healthy and rolling—The Redskins are continuing to run the ball despite the production not being where it needs to be. Kelley is averaging 4.5 yards per carry while replacement Samaje Perine is averaging just 3.0. If they can get the extra yard and a half per carry they get from Kelley for the rest of the season their offense will be very tough to stop.

RELATED: COUSINS' STRONG GAME GOES UNDER THE RADAR

Make some plays on special teams—Jamison Crowder is 24th among the 26 qualifying punt returners with an average of 5.0 yards. His longest return was 12 yards, the shortest longest return among qualifiers (if you can follow along with that). Tress Way is 25th in net punting average. He had a chance to make life very difficult on a rookie QB on Sunday but his punt with a minute left landed five yards deep in the end zone. Dustin Hopkins, who will be out Sunday, has missed both of his field goals from beyond 50 yards and he missed a PAT against the 49ers. Add it all up and their special teams DVOA is 24th in the league. They need to make something happen.

Shut down something—The Redskins are in the middle of the pack in both opponent net yards passing attempt with 5.9 and in opponent yards per rushing attempt at 4.0. Most good defenses take away one aspect of the offense and make the other team beat them with a predictable attack. I think that the Redskins can improve their passing defense when they get Josh Norman back.

Certainly, there are some other “ifs” involved for the Redskins to become legitimate NFC title game contenders. They start on Monday in Philadelphia. If they can go in and get a win, they would be no worse than tied in the loss column for the best record in the NFC. If they lose, they fall 2.5 games behind the Eagles with Philly holding the head-to-head sweep.

It's too early to start sorting out tiebreakins scenarios but it's clear that the opportunity is there for the Redskins’ taking, we’ll see if they can step up and grab it.

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS.

 

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Need to Know: Five Key plays in Redskins vs. Saints

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USA Today Sports Images

Need to Know: Five Key plays in Redskins vs. Saints

NEW ORLEANS—Here is what you need to know on this Monday, November 20, three days before the Washington Redskins play the New York Giants on Thanksgiving Day at FedEx Field.

Timeline

Today’s schedule: Jay Gruden press conference 3 p.m.

Days until:

—Redskins @ Cowboys Thursday night (11/30) 10
—Redskins @ Chargers (12/10) 20
—Cardinals @ Redskins (12/17) 27

Five key plays in Redskins vs Saints

D.J. Swearinger interception in the first quarter—Although the Redskins didn’t fully capitalize on the takeaway in Saints territory—they got a field goal—the play helped the Redskins jump on top in what would be a back-and-forth first half. Swearinger has three interceptions in the last two games.

Fourth and six pass to Vernon Davis for 26 yards—This was the first of two fourth-down gambles Gruden took. This one was from the New Orleans 39. This one paid off in spades as Kirk Cousins found Davis for a first down at the Saints 13. Three plays later Samaje Perine got in from a yard out. That made it 17-10 and the Redskins would not trail again until, well, you know.

False start when lined up for field goal—Things were going great for the Redskins as they had a nice drive going at the end of the half. The advance stalled and they lined up for a 51-yard field goal try. But there was a false start on the play and the Redskins had to punt. Josh Holsey almost downed it inside the one but he shuffled his feet one too many times and he fielded the ball with his heels on the goal line stripe, resulting in a touchback. That gave the Saints the field position they needed to drive for a field goal as time ran out.  

Fourth and one fake punt—The Redskins had just seen Chris Thompson get carted off the field after suffering a broken fibula in his right leg. It was fourth and one at the Washington 15 and they lined up in punt formation. Niles Paul took the direct snap and powered up the middle for five yards. Apparently inspired by the big, uh, courage shown by Jay Gruden on that, the Redskins continued the drive and got into the end zone on a 40-yard pass from Cousins to Ryan Grant. That put the Reskins up 24-13 with 1:44 left in the third.

Third and one Perine for minus-1—I don’t think I need go into much detail here, you know what happened.

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS.

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In the span of six minutes, the Redskins' season went from hope to despair in New Orleans

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USA TODAY Sports

In the span of six minutes, the Redskins' season went from hope to despair in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS—The Redskins’ game against the Saints, and perhaps their whole season went from hope to despair in the span of just six minutes.

When Kirk Cousins threw a touchdown pass to tight end Jeremy Sprinkle, the Redskins were up by 15 points with 5:58 to play. Some Saints fans departed the Mercedes Benz Superdome, figuring that their team’s seven-game losing streak was about to end.

But Drew Brees and the Saints weren’t going anywhere. The Redskins defense was loose, to say the least, as the Hall of Fame quarterback completed seven of seven passes for 82 yards and a touchdown. The drive took just 3:05 and it seemed that the Saints barely broke a sweat.

RELATED: 5 TAKEAWAYS FROM THE PAINFUL LOSS IN NEW ORLEANS

“We gave up too quick a score on the initial one,” said Jay Gruden.

But the Redskins were still in control of the game. After two Samaje Perine runs, the Saints were out of timeouts and Washington had third and one with 2:38 to go. The lined up and then called a timeout.

“We actually lined up with a tight end on the wrong side so we had to get that fixed up,” said Gruden.

It’s week 11 and the tight end can’t line up on the right side of the formation on a critical play. Perhaps they should be beyond these issues by now?

Even with the tight end properly aligned, the play had no chance as Perine tried to go off the right side and he was hit for a one-yard loss. The clock wound down to the two-minute warning and Tress Way boomed a 54-yard punt that was fair caught at the Saints 13. The Redskins had to defend 87 yards of turf for 1:53. They couldn’t do it.

Brees again took on the role of the hot knife and the Redskins still were the butter. Four for four passing, each throw gaining 17 yards or more. The touchdown pass to Alvin Kamara and the two-point conversion tied the game at 31-31.

When asked what happened, linebacker and former Saint Junior Galette said that while he respects Brees and the Saints, this one was on the defense.

“In two minute, he’s one of the best I’ve seen but still we’ve got to bow down and tighten our defense up,” he said.

“They’re a really good team but I honestly feel that we beat ourselves today,” said Galette. “It’s a really good team, one of the better teams we’ve played all year but if you watch that game you know we beat ourselves.”

Safety D.J. Swearinger echoed Galette’s viewpoint.

RELATED: THIS REDSKINS' LOSS LITERALLY DEFIED THE ODDS

“They came back and beat us fair and square,” he said. “But at the end of the day we didn’t do our job. We beat ourselves for sure. We for sure beat ourselves.”

In case there was any doubt about it, Swearinger then said that they beat themselves twice more in the next sentences.

The good part of the Saints drive was that it consumed just 48 seconds, leaving the Redskins with 1:05 to try to get a winning field goal. Cousins threw three passes to Jamison Crowder and all of a sudden the Redskins were on the New Orleans 34, close enough to at least attempt a game winning field goal.

But then it fell apart. With 31 seconds left, Cousins took a snap from behind center and immediately threw the ball out of bounds on the right side with no receiver nearby. The officials conferred and dropped a flag for intentional grounding.

The flag never should have been thrown because the rule says that the quarterback must be in imminent danger of getting sacked. Cousins was not. But the way the play went down it certainly gave referee Walt Coleman the opportunity to make a mistake and you never want to do that.

The explanations for the throw offered by the coach and quarterback were somewhat confusing and didn’t really line up. But for the record, here is the gist of what each of them said:

Gruden: “I was trying to get his [Cousins’] attention and hand signal a bubble screen out there. If we get it out there and get it out of bounds, we get another play called. Unfortunately, Jamison didn’t get it.”

Cousins: “I looked over to the sideline out of the corner of my eye and I just saw the coaches saying, ‘throw it’. They wanted potentially an audible, get to an actual pass play. I thought they were saying throw it to Jamison, in the general area of Jamison, there was an eligible in the area and there’s no penalty.”

There is little point into going into the minutia of what they said. There seems to have been some confusion in the loud Superdome and perhaps Gruden will clarify it in his Monday press conference.

Again, it should not have been grounding but you can’t give them a chance to make that mistake.

And the Redskins still had 18 seconds (after a 10-second runoff that perhaps should not have happened) to try to get back the 10 yards and maybe a few more to get a shot at a field goal. But he was sacked (the Saints’ first sack of the day) and he fumbled. Morgan Moses recovered but the clock ran out.

Although they had a 10-minute overtime, it felt like it was over and it soon was. The Redskins went three and out. Brees didn’t even have to drop back to pass as runs of 20 and 31 yards set up the field goal that applied the final gut punch.

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS.