The 2017 Redskins look like a different team from the 2016 version. 

In 2016, the Redskins lost their final game of the year to a Giants squad with nothing to play for and a cast of backup players. Had Washington won that Week 17 contest, at home, the Redskins would have made the playoffs. Instead, Jay Gruden's squad came out flat and got beat up and down the field. Kirk Cousins' back-breaking interception in the final minutes firmly locked the 'Skins out of the playoffs. 

One year later, however, and it seems like Gruden's squad is different. Though the team's record is just 2-2 through four games, the Redskins have been impressive in their last three contests. The defense is not recognizable compared to the 2016 version. 

Here's the truth: The Redskins have an opportunity to prove they are a different team in 2017 than they were in 2016. It starts Sunday. 

San Francisco comes in to this game winless in five contests. The 49ers will be tough, but Washington is the better team. The Redskins should win this game, perhaps by a healthy margin. To prove things are different, Washington needs to win this game. Full coverage starts on NBC Sports Washington at noon.

Here are three storylines to watch:

  1. Getting sleepy - NFL life is a grind. It just is. But the Redskins should be fresh, coming off a bye, and the Niners should be gassed. Sunday's contest will mark San Francisco's third straight road contest, and on top of that, the Niners have played back-to-back overtime games. In their last two games, the Niners' defense has been on the field at least 75 snaps. That workload will linger, and the Redskins renewed focus on the run game should capitalize. 
  2. Speaking of running - The Redskins have run the ball way more in 2017 than they did in 2016. Last year, the Skins ran the ball 85 times for 372 yards their first four games. This year, the Skins have run the ball 116 times for more than 500 yards their first four games. That delta is significant, and should frame the offensive attack against the 49ers. While it's unlikely Rob Kelley plays because of injuries, rookie Samaje Perine will have a big opportunity against San Fran. The Niners have not given up 100 yards rushing in their last two games, but that could change against Washington. 
  3. Air attack - This should be the game the Redskins offense breaks out. Last week, San Francisco gave up more than 300 yards passing to Colts' QB Jacoby Brissett. While the young passer has potential, at this stage, Kirk Cousins is significantly better. The Redskins offense should produce. Don't forget at all, however, that Kyle Shanahan will bring a very focused Niners team to FedEx. 

News & Notes

  • The Redskins have not beaten the 49ers in their last four tries. 
  • Redskins offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh played quarterback for the 49ers from 1983 to 1985. He backed up a QB you might have heard of - Joe Montana.
  • Of players with at least 1,500 pass attempts, Kirk Cousins currently ranks third in NFL history with a 65.9 completion percentage. 
  • Preston Smith has a sack in all four games this season. Can he make it five? Only Charles Mann and Fred Stokes have started a Redskins season with five straight games with a sack.
  • Vernon Davis ranks second in the NFL in average gain per catch for tight ends. 

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