Difficulty level rises for Redskins

First-place Washington will face plenty of tests, starting today against Bills

November 07, 1999|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Redskins say there will be a different ending this season.

They promise it won't be like 1996, when they bolted to a 7-1 start, then lost six of their next seven games. They vow it won't be like 1997, when they opened with a 4-2 record, then dropped home games to the Ravens and the St. Louis Rams, needing a season-ending win against the Philadelphia Eagles just to salvage a winning record.

So, although the Redskins (5-2) are atop the NFC East in November for the first time since 1996, they understand the real season begins today when they meet the Buffalo Bills (5-3) in Landover.

"It's totally different now," receiver Michael Westbrook said. "When we were 7-1, I didn't think we had a good team. I was wondering how we were winning games. We were wondering. Everybody was wondering. But now I don't wonder because I know how we're winning games.

"We're a team. We have a different guy throwing the ball, a different guy blocking for a ball-thrower, a lot of unselfishness going around."

But there is one major similarity this year with the '96 team: Both jumped out to impressive starts as a result of a soft early schedule.

The Redskins' five victories have come against teams with a combined record of 13-24, only beating one team -- the 5-3 New York Giants -- that is above .500.

The rest of the schedule won't be as easy. Beginning today, the Redskins will finish the season by facing five teams that have at least five victories. The Bills haven't lost to an NFC East opponent since 1990, winning nine straight regular-season meetings.

Still, the Redskins say enough lessons have been learned even if they are just passed down from teammates. The only remaining starters from the second half of the '96 season are Westbrook, guard Tre' Johnson and cornerback Darrell Green. Three others, including linebacker Greg Jones, remember the 1997 collapse.

"The fans, radio, television, you all aren't going to let us forget it," Jones said. "Things can turn at any second, so don't be lulled into a false sense of security."

The Redskins, who haven't made the playoffs since 1992, may find the postseason as elusive as fleet-footed Bills quarterback Doug Flutie. The NFL's top rushing quarterback has drawn most of the attention of the Redskins, who have the league's worst defense and have had enough trouble stopping pure drop-back passers.

At 5 feet 10, Flutie causes trouble for defensive linemen because he can hide behind his blockers in the pocket, which also means defensive backs can't read his eyes. Plus, he has a knack for creating havoc late in the fourth quarter.

Last week against the Ravens, Flutie ran 17 yards to convert a fourth-and-15 with a little more than two minutes left and Buffalo trailing by four. After two straight completions to Andre Reed, Flutie hit Jonathan Linton for a game-winning, 5-yard touchdown pass with 1: 35 remaining.

"He's a terror out there, especially when he starts scrambling," Redskins linebacker Shawn Barber said. "Even when he's running, there's definitely a method to the madness. It's not everyone doing their own thing. They have practiced their scrambling patterns."

With the Bills' pass-protection problems and the hamstring injury to receiver Eric Moulds, Flutie's ability to run has become the offense's most productive weapon. He's one of the few quarterbacks to average more yards per rush (6.3) than yards per pass attempt (6.2).

So what happens if a Redskins lineman finds himself one-on-one with Flutie in the backfield?

"You just hope that he doesn't do something where you'll end up on CNN-SI or `SportsCenter,' " Redskins defensive end Kenard Lang said.

When the Redskins' offense lines up against the Buffalo defense, it will match both teams' strengths.

The Redskins are averaging 35 points and are three points off the NFL-record pace set by the Minnesota Vikings last season. The Bills, one of the few teams still employing a 3-4 defense, have allowed more than 21 points only twice this season and have given up just 12 touchdowns.

"It's one of the toughest teams we're going to face this year," said Redskins quarterback Brad Johnson, who has passed for an NFC-leading 1,861 yards and 14 touchdowns.

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