With their best win in two years behind them, the Washington Redskins find themselves preparing for a game that could course-correct their entire season. Observant fans will note that the Redskins faced a very similar situation at this same time last year.
It didn't go well.
The 2013 Redskins tangled with these same Vikings the Thursday following a thrilling overtime win over the Chargers. With Washington holding the opportunity for a second win in five days, I said:
Now, the table is set for Washington to double up: On Thursday night, the Redskins face a Vikings squad going through a fairly terrible season. Minnesota has shuffled quarterbacks like a Vegas blackjack dealer, settling (again) on Christian Ponder after flirting with Josh Freeman, a guy who had been with the team for about five days before making his first start . . . Minnesota won't be a pushover, especially at home, but Washington matches up much better against the Vikings than against many of the teams they've played in 2013.
Most of us remember what happened. The Redskins suffered their worst defeat of the season. I don't mean the most lopsided loss. Rest assured, there were plenty of other humiliating defeats with margins much wider than the one in the Minnesota game. I mean that the Vikings game, more than any other, was the one Washington absolutely should have won, but didn't.
And it hurt. The Redskins would lose every week thereafter, eventually going from 3-5 to 3-13.
The stakes are just as high now as they were in 2013. Washington again sits at 3-5. A win over the Vikings would be the Redskins' third victory in a row. A three-game winning streak for a team that won three games all of last season would obviously mark definitive and important progress.
Washington also has a bye week coming. Getting to 4-5 with a week to rest up would suddenly thrust the Redskins back into "hey, they're actually not awful" territory. Speaking of awful, the first game after the bye is against the woeful Buccaneers at home. Assuming the NFL hasn't contracted the Bucs by then, that's a game that Washington absolutely needs to win---and should win.
There's a real opportunity for Washington to claw its way back to .500 after a 1-5 start. Whether the Redskins will take advantage is another question entirely.
Something feels different about this season, though. Maybe it's the "honeymoon" effect for first-year coach Jay Gruden. Perhaps it's the renewed optimism that follows consecutive victories. It could even be the heightened anticipation of the return of Robert Griffin III.
Whatever the case, Minnesota seems more vulnerable now than it did a year ago. At first blush, that doesn't make sense: Last year's Vikings squad was 1-7, and some idiot even said that the Redskins matched up well against Minnesota (see above). This year, the Vikings are 3-5, just like the Redskins.
A closer examination reveals some alarming facts for Minnesota fans. In the seven games since the Vikings removed Adrian Peterson from their active roster, Minnesota has failed to reach even 20 points six times in seven tries. Their only wins since that opening week have come against a shaky Atlanta team and the aforementioned Buccaneers. They were +2 in turnovers last week, but still needed overtime to beat what is perhaps the worst team in the conference, if not the league. In his five starts as the Vikings' quarterback, rookie Teddy Bridgewater has thrown only two touchdowns against five interceptions. He has had games with passer ratings of 41.3 and 56.1.
As we all know, all it takes to reignite the passions and postseason aspirations of a hopelessly loyal Redskins fanbase is a win over the Cowboys. So, I don't want to oversell what Washington might be able to accomplish this season. Even with a win on Sunday, reaching the playoffs will be a serious uphill battle.
Having said that, a .500-or-better year would begin to look possible. Posting an 8-8 record coming off of a 3-13 season followed by a 1-5 start would be a great step forward for this franchise at this moment in history. That type of finish---and that type of progress---suddenly becomes a plausible scenario . . . if the Redskins can beat Minnesota.
And I believe that they will.
Of course, I also said the same thing last year.