PITTSBURGH -- Mark Rypien started the season under a cloud of doubt and a swirl of cynicism. Too erratic. Not reliable in the clutch. Can't stay healthy. Those were the hard knocks on the Washington Redskins' quarterback.
But in a season that continues to gain momentum, all criticism of Rypien has been suspended until further review. Like, maybe, the Super Bowl review.
For the second straight week, Rypien had all the right answers yesterday when confronted with a defense designed to stop the Redskins' running game. The Pittsburgh Steelers committed seven men to run defense, but, like the Atlanta Falcons before them, couldn't play the pass.
Rypien passed for 325 yards and two touchdowns as the unbeaten Redskins rolled to a 41-14 victory at Three Rivers Stadium. The Redskins' 11th consecutive victory clinched a playoff spot and put them in elite company. They became the ninth team in NFL history to start a season 11-0. But there will be no discussion by the Redskins about a perfect season. Ever cautious, coach Joe Gibbs said he doesn't want to think about the "P" word.
"I'm not really thinking about that at all," said Gibbs.
"That's not the focus. The focus is for us to win our division and get to a Super Bowl. That's what we want. That's what we're trying to do."
Because New Orleans lost, 24-21, to San Diego yesterday, the Redskins have a two-game lead in the race for home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
Because Dallas lost, 22-9, to the New York Giants yesterday, the Redskins need only to beat the Cowboys in RFK Stadium next week to secure the NFC East title. And Dallas had better come prepared to deal with the Redskins' passing game, or suffer the same fate as the Steelers and Falcons.
Playing against defenses geared to stop the run the last two weeks, Rypien has thrown for 767 yards and eight touchdowns. Pittsburgh wasn't blitz-happy like Atlanta, and didn't tempt Rypien with a lot of man-to-man coverage. But he found the seams in a soft two-deep zone defense often enough to hit the big play as well as the quick toss.
It took only three plays for Rypien to set the tone for yesterday's romp. With the Steelers crowded at the line of scrimmage, he audibled to a pass and hit wide receiver Art Monk for a 63-yard gain. It didn't hurt that field judge Ron Spitler inadvertently picked off Steelers safety Carnell Lake as he closed for a tackle on Monk around the Pittsburgh 35. On the next play, short-yardage running back Gerald Riggs powered across from the 1 for a touchdown.
Rypien finished up his day's work with a 49-yard touchdown pass to Gary Clark, who had gotten behind defensive backs Richard Shelton and Gary Jones in the fourth quarter after Pittsburgh had cut the Washington lead to 27-14.
Rypien's other touchdown pass was an 11-yarder he floated to Monk in the back of the end zone in the second quarter. Monk had slipped behind safety Thomas Everett, snagged the pass with his right hand, planted with his right foot, and as he fell out of bounds, tapped his left foot down in the end zone. Not-so-instant replay let the touchdown stand.
For the second week in a row, Rypien's teammates marveled at his passing prowess.
"Some people didn't believe Ryp is the kind of quarterback he is," said running back Earnest Byner, who came out of the game after gaining just 5 yards on nine carries in the first half while playing on a sprained knee. "They figure if they stop the run, they could have our number."
The numbers on Rypien and the Redskins are mind-boggling. He was almost automatic on third down, converting 11 of 16 opportunities for an amazing 69 percent success rate.
"We're doing so well we're coordinating our zones and man type reads into our third-down plays," he said. "We're making the correct read and the correct throws and the protection has been fantastic."
Rypien hasn't been sacked in six games. He hasn't thrown an interception in the last two. Things are going so well for the Redskins that even when they're not trying to score, they score.
At least that's what backup quarterback Jeff Rutledge said after he threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Sanders with a 20-point lead and just 2:05 on the clock. On third-and-10, after calling the team's first timeout of the second half, Rutledge found Sanders open deep on a post pattern and hit him for the touchdown that might not be easily forgotten in Pittsburgh.
"We called the play to pick up a first down, but it opened up deep for the touchdown," said Rutledge, who has thrown only two passes this season, both completions. Nevertheless, he said he was "glad to get the opportunity to throw one."