TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Washington Redskins, who are running out of challenges this year, created some new ones for themselves yesterday.
With nothing at stake after they were handed home-field advantage throughout the playoffs when the New Orleans Saints were upset earlier in the day, the Redskins gave themselves a chance to prove they could hand an outmanned foe a two-touchdown advantage in the first half and still rally for their 13th victory in 14 games.
After sleepwalking through the first half and trailing 14-0, the Redskins woke up at halftime and came back to post a 20-14 victory over the Phoenix Cardinals at Sun Devil Stadium.
"It's like a human nature thing," said linebacker Matt Millen, who seemed to be lapsing into President Bush's way of talking as he explained how the Redskins couldn't get moti
vated to play a team that was 2-9 in its last 11 games and had lost to them, 34-0, in the first game.
The Redskins were so ineffective in the first half -- rushing for only 32 yards and giving up their first sack in nine games -- that coach Joe Gibbs didn't even resort to the chair-kicking routine that seemed to spark the team a week ago when it was ahead of the Los Angeles Rams 7-6 at halftime before winning easily, 27-6.
This time, he turned the motivational duties over to Millen, the veteran linebacker.
"I was screaming louder than he was," Millen said sarcastically.
Millen, though, had a serious message for the players.
"One of the things that was said, it was me who said it, was that I was glad we were in that position," Millen said. "Then you have an opportunity to see what you're about. You can go out there and lay an egg and say, 'Well, our minds weren't in it,' or you can say, 'Look, we're supposed to be one of the best teams. Let's prove it.' "
They proved it.
"We came out and crushed them," Millen said. "We went out and played the way you have to play."
In the third quarter, the Cardinals had the ball six plays, gaining zero yards of offense, and the Redskins put together touchdown drives of 80 and 71 yards to tie the game, 14-14.
They then won it in the fourth quarter on a pair of Chip Lohmiller field goals.
Gibbs had some X's and O's to describe how the Cardinals caught the Redskins off guard in the first half. He noted they surprised them with a diamond safety defense.
"They used an extra [eighth] man close to the line of scrimmage in the middle and took away a lot of our run stuff," he said. "It was a good job by them. We really weren't prepared for them."
Gibbs said the Redskins countered with a three-wide receiver set and had quarterback Mark Rypien call a lot of audibles on the line of scrimmage in the third quarter to loosen up the defense.
But Millen wasn't buying any of that technical explanation for the slow start. He said the problem was the Redskins' attitude.
"It was just mental," Millen said. "From an X's and O's standpoint, we were fine. From an attitude standpoint, we were pathetic."
Several players, including Rypien and Wilber Marshall, mentioned that back-to-back trips across the country were draining, but the main problem was that it was difficult to get inspired to play a team the Redskins are now 14-1 against in the last 15 meetings. They're 28-4 in the last 32 meetings since 1976.
It didn't help that they had beaten former Redskins assistant coach Joe Bugel, 103-10, in their three previous games against them.
It also didn't help that they clinched everything before the game started, although several players said they didn't even realize that.
Despite all the speeches Gibbs gave them about how tough the game could be, the Redskins didn't believe him.
As defensive lineman Charles Mann said, "As much as Gibbs emphasized it and we emphasized it in our meeting last night that we've got to go out and take care of this thing, they're not going to give it to us . . . it just goes to show that as much as you talk, if somebody doesn't believe it, you're not going to [play well]. As much as we wanted to believe it, we'd look at them and say, 'Hey, look at these guys, they aren't winning any games."
Gibbs, of course, believed it.
"Maybe it's a good lesson for them," he said. "I've been saying anybody can beat us and I believe it. Maybe they don't. That's the problem."
Even with their second-half comeback, the Redskins didn't wrap it up until the final minute.
Phoenix quarterback Stan Gelbaugh was lifted midway in the fourth quarter after Brad Edwards intercepted a pass that set up Lohmiller's second field goal.
Chris Chandler came in and got the Cardinals their only two first downs of the second half, but the drive stalled at the Washington 47.
The Redskins now have two meaningless regular-season games left against a pair of bitter division foes, the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles.
Gibbs said he'll play the starters all the way and try to win. That's the only way he knows how to coach.
When the real games start for the Redskins again in the playoffs the weekend of Jan. 4-5, they know they'll only be two home playoff games from the Super Bowl.
The statistic to remember now is that they're 7-1 in home playoff games under Gibbs.
If they can boost that to 9-1, they'll be going to Minneapolis for Super Bowl XXVI.