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Irresistible Force?

With the showdown against Denver looming, Tom evaluates Washington's prospects this Sunday and provides some context for the Broncos' amazing offensive performance (mixing in a little Redskins history along the way).

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Consider the following about the offense the Redskins will be tasked with stopping on Sunday: The Broncos lost their first game of the season at Indianapolis this past weekend.  The commentary during the game seemed to indicate that the Colts' formidable defense had "figured out" how to slow down the mighty Denver machine.  I seem to recall Cris Collinsworth using the word "blueprint" at one point.

Yet, even in an allegedly diminished capacity induced by a strong Colts' secondary and a potent pass rush, the Broncos generated 429 total net yards.  Peyton Manning threw for 386 and three touchdowns.  But for a terrible fumble by Ronnie Hillman inside the Indianapolis five-yard line, Denver may have even won the game.  Instead, the Broncos scored a season-low 33 points in a 39-33 loss.

Again: This was an "off" night.

Simply put, the Broncos are every bit the best offense in the NFL, and one of the better offenses in NFL history.  In fact, I would put them in the conversation with the 1983 Washington Redskins, the 1998 Minnesota Vikings, and the 2007 New England Patriots as the best offense of my lifetime, if not ever.

The interesting thing about those three teams, of course, is that none of them won the Super Bowl.

Led by Tom Brady, Wes Welker, and Randy Moss, the Patriots went undefeated and set a scoring record, only to tally exactly 14 points in a Super Bowl loss.  That loss came against the Giants, a team New England had beaten earlier in the year.  The ‘98 Vikings, featuring a rejuvenated Randall Cunningham, Cris Carter, and, uh, Randy Moss, didn't even make it to the Super Bowl, losing a heartbreaker to the Falcons in the NFC Championship when Gary Anderson missed a 38-yard field goal - the only kick he missed all year.

Most readers of this site will recall the story of the 1983 Redskins.  Washington, the defending world champions, romped through the regular season.  Joe Theismann was on his way to being named the NFL's MVP while John Riggins had his best season ever, scoring an NFL-record 24 touchdowns.

The Redskins lost twice, but both losses were by a single point.  Like the Patriots in 2007, Washington met a team in the Super Bowl it had beaten during the regular season.  And, also like the Patriots, the Redskins' record-setting offense went cold in the title game, as Washington could only muster a field goal and one touchdown in a 38-9 loss to the (then-)Los Angeles Raiders.

The ‘83 Redskins may not have gone down as the best team in history if they had won the title that year, but I think NFL afficionados would have spoken about that offense with an "‘85-Bears-defense-type" reverence.  What made the 541 points the Redskins scored that year especially impressive is that, unlike the other teams among the all-time team scoring leaders, Washington's offense was based around power running.

That between-the-tackles philosophy has some big benefits.  One of which is better ball-control.  To wit: Thanks in part to its style of offensive play, as well as an opportunistic defense, the 1983 Redskins had a +43 turnover margin.  That's an average of +2.7 per game.

That ratio still stands as the best ever, and it's one of those records that may never be broken.  The next-closest is +33, and that happened in 1946 in the old AAFC.  No modern team has come closer than +28 for the season.

A power-running offense also usually leads to lengthy, time-consuming drives that limit scoring opportunities somewhat - for both teams (which is kind of the point).  Not so with the ‘83 Redskins, who were so dominant that a power-running offense with some nice vertical passing stuff mixed in managed to break the NFL scoring record by a fair margin.

All of which brings me back to this year's Redskins, and the offense they face Sunday.

Denver has already scored 298 points.  That's more than seven NFL teams scored in all of 2012.  The Broncos are averaging about 42.6 points per game, even with 35 and 33 in their last two, respectively.  By comparison, the 1983 Washington Redskins finished with a per-game average of 33.8 points.

Obviously a product of a different era of football, the Broncos are very different than those ‘83 Redskins, but every bit as effective.  Watching Manning now, it's clear that he's not one of the ten best arms in the NFL.  He might not be one of the twenty or thirty best.  There's even been a little chatter about some of the "wobbly" passes he threw against the Colts.

None of that matters.  Not having a great arm doesn't keep him from being the best quarterback in the league.

"I throw a lot of wobbly touchdowns, too." - Peyton Manning

Arm strength was never Manning's best quality, at least not by NFL standards.  He might not fire footballs with the velocity or distance of a Matthew Stafford or Joe Flacco, but he's got great touch, and his lack of a pure cannon (especially at age 37 and post-neck-injury) just underscores his greatest strength: How absurdly well Manning understands his own offense and opposing defenses.

The numbers are appropriately staggering: Manning has thrown for 25 touchdowns in less than half a season.  To put that into perspective, Manning threw for 37 touchdowns in all of 2012, his second-best total ever.  His 71.6% completion rate would be his all-time best.  He has already thrown for over 2,500 yards.

In all, Manning is on pace to throw for 5,863 yards and 57 touchdowns.  Both marks would obliterate the current single-season NFL records.

It's difficult to imagine that the Redskins will hold him much under his averages, especially with Brandon Meriweather and Reed Doughty's respective statuses unclear as of this writing.  Doughty suffered a concussion against the Bears, and Meriweather is appealing a two-game suspension doled out after a pair of penalty-drawing hits (among a season full of them).

Whoever plays in the Washington secondary, what makes this game so problematic for the Redskins is the sheer number of weapons Manning has at his disposal, some of whom have achieved "weapon" status as a result of Manning's skill.  He has, at a minimum, four bona fide threats in the passing game (Wes Welker, Demariyus Thomas, Eric Decker, and emerging star Julius Thomas at tight end), and that's to say nothing of the cadre of running backs used in various screen and draw scenarios.

The Redskins have actually done a decent job of limiting the elite receivers they've faced.  Brandon Marshall tallied 75 yards and no touchdowns on six catches.  Dez Bryant had just 36 yards on five catches, also failing to score.  The best receiver in the world, Calvin Johnson, had 115 yards and a touchdown for the Lions - a very good day, but not outrageous.

But, when the Redskins faced a Packers team constructed a little more like the Broncos are, with three good wideouts and a tight end receiving threat, Washington simply didn't have the ability to take enough things away defensively.

Aaron Rodgers, instantly diagnosing the holes in Washington's defense, led Green Bay to a romp.  Jermichael Finley hauled in six balls for 65 yards and a touchdown, Jordy Nelson added 66 and scored twice, James Jones had a whopping 178 on 11 catches, and Randall Cobb pitched in with a stellar, nine-catch, 128-yard day that included a score.  Oh, and back-up running back James Starks ran through broken tackle after broken tackle, generating 132 rushing yard and 36 receiving yards.

To be fair, Washington has improved on both sides of the ball since playing the Packers.  Specifically, the Redskins' offense is moving the chains more consistently behind a less-rusty Robert Griffin III, keeping the defense on the sideline and winning the field-position battle.

However, the Broncos are a better version of what the Redskins saw in Green Bay.  Denver is also at home, and is also coming off of a loss.  The key for Washington to keep pace with the Broncos will be the pass rush.  I think the Redskins will have to blitz a little more than they're used to doing, because relying on coverage to contain this offense - especially with the possibility of a depleted secondary - is a recipe for disaster.

In the very important yards-per-pass-attempt category, the Washington defense ranks second-worst in the league, just ahead of Chicago.  Denver's offense is easily the best in the league in that category.  Sacks will be crucial.

With an offense that seems to have turned a corner against the Bears, and a defense that has a penchant for big plays, the Redskins should put up more of a fight against Denver than they did against the Packers, who had Washington whipped by halfway through the second quarter.

For the second straight week, however, I think the Redskins are in a game that will take at least 42 points to win.

Quite possibly more.

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