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A Glimmer of Hope

Tom discusses the Redskins' progress and how much tonight's Giants game matters for the season.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

In a mere three-and-a-half hours last Sunday, the big question about the Washington Redskins morphed from "Should they tank to get the top pick in the 2016 draft?" to "Is this team the favorite to win the NFC East?"

This wasn't just the usual demonstration of how wildly and quickly media narratives can shift.  Although, it was also that.  No, there was something qualitatively different about that 24-10 win over the Rams and the sea-change of conventional wisdom that followed in its wake.

Washington had dominated the first half, forcing six St. Louis punts.  The Redskins' best forced-punt total in a game last year was eight.  The Redskins led 17-0 at the break, but, after a couple of bad possessions and a 40-yard bomb to Kenny Britt, it was 17-10.  Fans, especially younger fans, began to brace for the inevitable collapse.

Except the "inevitable" didn't happen.

Washington resumed its dominance at the line of scrimmage, didn't commit any additional turnovers, continued to rush the passer effectively, and tacked on another touchdown to cruise to a comfortable win.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys were losing starting quarterback Tony Romo for two months (after already losing Dez Bryant for at least that long), but were fortunate enough to be playing the suddenly-hapless Eagles.  As Sam Bradford stumbled his way through a performance that seemed as if it were fueled by massive quantities of Benadryl, Philadelphia fell to 0-2.

The Giants are winless, too.  They're dealing with one game given away due to grossly incompetent clock management, and another defeat in which they had a ten-point, second-half lead with the ball deep in Atlanta territory.

Objectively, the Redskins are playing the best football of anyone in the NFC East as of four days ago.

It's hard to believe, I know.  So hard to believe, in fact, that the usual, axe-to-grind outlets really reached in order to push their customary anti-Redskins stories.  The most prominent of these claimed that Robert Griffin III was isolating himself from teammates, and, in particular, wasn't speaking to Kirk Cousins.

This was the same RGIII I had seen just hours before slapping five with Cousins prior to the game, and, later, running from the sideline to the end zone to celebrate Matt Jones' second touchdown with the offense.

For once, the anti-Redskins stories didn't stick.

Probably because, also for once, they weren't true.

Instead, questions about Chip Kelly's roster-building skills and his relationship with DeMarco Murray, discussions of the injury chaos in Dallas, and concerns over the Giants' ability not to throw games away (and over grisly, firework-related injuries) spared the Redskins their usual round of humiliations.

About those Giants: Tonight's game is the type of opportunity Washington hasn't been able to capitalize upon since 2012.  There's been a lot muttering the past couple of days that, "Well, the Redskins were 1-1 last year, too, but . . ."  And that's true.

Yet, as I said, this team seems different.  Tougher.  Smarter.  More confident.

We saw those elements in play on Sunday.  We also saw this Redskins team's blueprint for success: Run the ball well and often behind a significantly improved offensive line.  Put kickoffs out of the end zone.  Hide coverage shortcomings with a consistent pass rush.  Have a quarterback who may not make spectacular plays, but who is efficient, gets rid of the ball, and doesn't commit turnovers.

That last one has always been a challenge for Kirk Cousins, but he managed to do that against St. Louis.  He went 23-for-27 as well, which speaks to another point: The roster Scot McCloughan has helped assemble is not only deeper than last year's, but it also fits what Jay Gruden is trying to do.

For the first time in a while, there's a sense that, while the Redskins may not be Super Bowl contenders yet, they are the kind of team that can be competitive in every game; the kind of team that doesn't collapse when faced with a little second-half adversity, and, instead, refocuses and puts the game away.  They have an impressive GM who understands the type of roster the head coach needs to succeed.

All of that may sound like no big deal to, say, a Patriots fan.  But Washington's fanbase knows that even getting to that basic level of competence is major progress measured against where this team was in 2013 and 2014.

We'll get to see tonight just how genuine that progress is.  Going on the road for a short-week divisional game and playing well is another marker.  The type of team the Redskins aspire to be takes advantage of such opportunities.

I said before the season started that I thought Washington would go 7-9.  Improved, but not a playoff contender.  If the Redskins can win in New Jersey tonight, I think that analysis has to change.

A victory against the Giants would give Washington fans something they haven't had in many, many months: A legitimate reason to know hope.