Another Game, Another Crossroads for Redskins

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like every week presents another fork in the road for the Redskins' season. This time around, the Minnesota Vikings provide an opportunity for Washington to claw its way back into the NFC East race.

Every game seems to bring with it a new "fork in the road," doesn't it?

This time around, Washington is 3-5, but with a chance to win its second game in five days. That would also mean a two-game winning streak (which is to say "a winning streak") for the first time this season. While that would only get the Redskins to just below .500, that mark would put Washington within a game of the division-leading Cowboys.

Despite themselves, the Redskins will still - somehow - remain very much in contention for the NFC East crown if they can pull off a win against Minnesota tomorrow night.

Washington is a team whose characteristic roller-coaster approach to Sunday's game against San Diego nearly cost it a win. In fact, Washington likely would have lost to the Chargers, but for a curious (I'm being kind, here) play-calling sequence at the six-inch line near the end of regulation.

That brings us to tomorrow night, when Washington will have a shot to move into a tie for second place. All the Redskins have to do is defeat the 1-7 Vikings.

Easier than it sounds.

Minnesota has been frisky of late. After the disastrous (I'm still being kind) Josh Freeman experiment, the Vikings hung with the Packers for a half before bowing 44-31. Last week, Minnesota probably should have beaten Dallas, but a last-minute touchdown pass from Tony Romo to Dwayne Harris salvaged an important victory for the home-standing Cowboys.

The Vikings have given up at least 23 points in every game, and at least 27 in all but one. Washington should score, but can the inconsistent Redskins defense do enough to keep Minnesota from putting up big numbers?

Everyone who has even a casual interest in the NFL knows how good Adrian Peterson is. I needn't address that here, except to say that feeding Peterson the ball against a team that doesn't tackle particularly well (once again: kind) is very likely to improve his 4.6 yards per carry average.

But here's the key for me, and why I think Washington has a great chance to win: In looking back at the Redskins' losses this season, one of the primary culprits has been shaky pass coverage at inopportune moments. In fact, Washington nearly lost the game Sunday after leaving Keenan Allen practically uncovered on a few plays (including on one pass that he fortuitously flat-out dropped). The quarterbacks who have best been able to take advantage of that defect have been, unsurprisingly, guys with names like Rodgers, Stafford, Manning, and Rivers.

The Vikings do not have a top-tier or even second-tier quarterback.

I will say this for Christian Ponder, though: After his benching in favor of Matt Cassel, followed by Freeman's debut just days after signing with Minnesota, Ponder has been noticeably better since retaking the starting job. It's all relative, and Ponder will never be mistaken for Peyton Manning, but he has posted his two highest passer ratings of the year in his two starts since regaining first-string status. His completion percentage since returning is about 67%.

He has also accounted for three touchdowns while only throwing one interception. That may not sound like much, but it's progress. In a scheme where Peterson is supposed to win the game, while Ponder is just supposed to not lose it, those are good numbers. Ponder is also a solid athlete who could run on Washington, especially if the Redskins drop extra guys to try to close up some of those coverage gaps.

Still, this feels like a Washington win. The most remarkable thing about that? For all of the hand-wringing over the bad start, the concerns over RGIII's injury, the preseason expectations after last year's NFC East title, the mild distraction of Albert Haynesworth, the Brandon Meriweather suspension, the horrendous first half against the Packers, and the worse fourth quarter against the Broncos . . . the 2013 Redskins would be one game better than they were at this point last year. And with a "mini-bye" to boot.

Despite all the negatives, Washington has a very real chance tomorrow night to get back on a path that could lead to the playoffs. A loss, on the other hand, would restart the loop of critical but open-ended questions we seem to have to ask about this team every week.

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