Finally. The regular season is around the corner, and I’m finally willing to throw out some bold (and some not so bold) predictions about the season. I’ve got a win total in mind, and I think it’s going to be a pretty big challenge for the team to meet, but I’m confident they are good enough to get there.
Last year, Hog Heaven correctly predicted an 8-8 season, though I’m sure that 5 games in, both Anthony and I were more than willing to admit that we had underprojected our beloved team. But the team finished out 4-7, and ultimately, we were right, but not in a good way. In 2007, Anthony correctly predicted a 9-7 season, while I overshot by a game, at 10-6.
So, we’ve got a pretty decent track record here to upkeep. The easiest way to do this would be to predict 8-8 again, as that gives us the best chance of ballparking the true win total. But given that I did that last year, I’m not enough of a coward to cop out again. If I feel like the Redskins are on the wrong track, and are headed for 6 wins, I’ll tell you. Likewise, if we’re in store for 13 wins and a super bowl berth, well, then that’s what I’ll predict.
So what kind of odds are the Redskins up against? That seems like a good place to start. The NFC East figures to be ultra competitive once again. Last year, the Giants ran away with it right from the beginning. The Eagles were every bit as talented, but the Giants put it away too early for it to matter. By the times the teams met in Week 10 for the first time, the Giants merely had to win that one game to seal the division. The Eagles would prove that they belonged at the top later on in the year, but the division was never a contest.
The ideal situation for the Redskins is that they create the kind of lead in the first month that the Giants did, and spend the rest of the season beating off desperate attempts by the rest of the division at making up the giant gap. We’ll investigate whether or not this is a realistic goal a little bit later.
Last year, the opening night showdown between the Giants and the Redskins wasn’t all that critical. No team wants to start the season 0-1, and certainly Jim Zorn would have liked nothing more than to crush a division rival in his head coaching debut, but, after the team started 4-1 and limped to the finish, there was no sense of “if only they had started 5-0”. But this season, it’s different. The teams will open in the Meadowlands again this year, very much on even footing. Division supremacy is at stake. And the Redskins are the healthier of the two teams; they can’t wait until Week 15 to meet the Giants with the division title on the line. It’s critical for the team’s well-being and psyche that they take care of business while they have the upper hand right away.
If the Redskins are who I think they are, this is going to be a true statement game. It probably won’t even be close: it’s a Giants’ massacre waiting to happen. If the team falters out of the gate, well, it’s not the end of the world, but they might not be who we thought they were. Unlike last year though, a win sets the mentality for the season as a team that is aiming to win it’s division and secure a first round bye. But if they lose, they’ll have to regroup in the next three weeks and work their way back. It might not seem like much, but compared to last year, it makes a huge difference.
Furthermore, the Giants, who figure to be the top competition to the Redskins for the division crown, cannot afford to get behind the eight-ball and go down a game to the Redskins in both the standings, and the NFL tiebreaker system. It’s the game of the month in September, and you bet both teams will bring their “A” games.
I spend so much time on the first game of the season because it really is that big of a deal. It’s not a game that national observers would expect the Redskins to win, but they might be the most improved team in the division, and certainly are the healthiest right now. You’d have to call them a slight favorite, if you were a betting man.
With St. Louis, Detroit, and Tampa Bay to follow, the Redskins are very likely to begin 3-1, one way or another. You’d probably call it a 60% chance of starting 3-1, a 20% chance of starting 2-2, and a 10% chance of starting either 4-0 or 1-3. I have to say, I like those odds. Then again, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. And the last game before the bye is probably the most critical game of the season: when the Eagles come to Landover.
At that point, it’s a near 100% probability that Michael Vick will be reinstated, and there’s a good chance that Brian Westbrook will be healthy, which makes it a particularly bad match-up for the Redskins. But we saw last year the kind of respect that Greg Blache has for the Eagles. He leaves no back uncovered when the teams play, and makes Donovan McNabb prove he can fit the ball into tight spaces. The strategy has worked thus far, but the Redskins need to hope it can work just one more time going into the bye week.
After some record inflating opponents immediately after the bye, the Redskins’ season begins on November 22 in the new Cowboys stadium. Optimistically, they could be heading in 7-2, realistically, more like 6-3 or 5-4. But what they are going in is less important than what they are coming out.
The Cowboys are not a true threat for the division, but much like last year, they will be there until someone takes them out. Last year, the Redskins knocked them off their perch in Week 4, but failed to make they irrelevant in a Week 11 showdown. With or without Terrell Owens, the Cowboys figure to feature a more prolific scoring defense, if with the usual holes against the pass. Jason Campbell had his best game of the year and his worst against Dallas last year, so I’ll take something in the middle both times. I don’t mind if you pick on Terence Newman, Jason, just make sure he doesn’t win the war next time. The Redskins play the Cowboys tough every time out, but you can’t count on dysfunction to overcome this team. No matter what month the calendar has, the Cowboys figure to be tough.
December will see the return of Gregg Williams to FedEx field, this time as defensive coordinator of the Saints. It will also send the Redskins to the west coast twice, first against the Raiders, and three weeks later against Norv Turner’s Chargers. The Chargers have a fantastic projection this year: from Football Outsiders, from K.C. Joyner’s Scientific Football, and from my own independent work. But the Redskins might have again drawn the longer of the two sticks. The week 17 match-up against the Chargers in San Diego might very well be played against their second teamers (or ideally, with both teams’ second teamers). It remains to be seen if we arrive at that point, if Norv Turner harbors enough resentment for the Redskins organization that he would be willing to cut off his nose to spite his face, but it’s just one of the many relevant storylines that will factor into this Redskins’ season.
One thing the Redskins need to improve on from last year is taking care of their business at home, specifically within the division. A 4-4 home record simply will not cut it again this season. Last year, the road schedule included Detroit, Seattle, Cincinnati, and San Francisco. This year, it still includes Detroit, but adds Atlanta, and Oakland. It’s a more difficult schedule, and the difference will have to be covered at him, when the Redskins have a significantly easier schedule than last season. Out: Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Arizona. In: Tampa Bay, Kansas City, and Denver. Protect the home field, and the most optimistic of Redskins projections don’t look so unrealistic.
And so, as it is, I’m feeling the homefield advantage this year. At least compared to last year. I have the Redskins penciled in for 5-3 there, but 6-2 on the road, and with a lot of the losses of the close variety. That means: the Redskins are in my mind, an 11-5 team, which would make for their best regular season finish since the magical 1991 season, when they won 14 games. But that’s not the ceiling on this team. The way this team matches up in the division, the ceiling is 6-0 in the rugged NFC East. Not in the Snyder era have the Redskins featured a team that could go out and win every divisional game they play in, but that’s where the defensive and offensive upgrades over the last two years have put this team. Every divisional game is going to be close at the least, and a Burgundy and Gold colored blowout in the best case scenario.
The Redskins have a bunch of reasons to believe they can hang in this divisional race to the very last week and win it if things go right. But perhaps the best reason is that: they might just be the best team. And as long as the pattern of good health continues (knock on wood), as far as I’m concerned, I want to see if the Giants, Eagles, and Cowboys can handle us! Screw your preseason expectations! Why should I believe that your team can beat my team when you haven’t proved a damn thing?!
And that’s were we stand just a week before the season. We’re looking at the division frontrunning Washington Redskins. The rest of those guys are just pretenders.