Close isn't enough for 'Skins

Playoffs are possible, and players see Chargers today as first test

Pro football

November 27, 2005|By EDWARD LEE | EDWARD LEE,SUN REPORTER

LaVar Arrington is tired.

Six seasons in the NFL, injuries serious and minor and a carousel of defensive coordinators have taken a toll on the Washington Redskins linebacker.

But what has battered and beaten Arrington even more is the franchise's inability to win consistently. Arrington, the No. 2 pick in the 2000 draft, has never been to the playoffs and has watched the team lose 13 games since 2003 by less than a touchdown.

"We're always close, but not good enough," Arrington said. "We don't just have to be the team that goes out there and competes. We can be a team that goes out there and wins. Until we realize that and start taking the necessary steps and measures to do that, that will be what we're known for - a team that plays hard and you're going to have to play your tails off to beat them, but someway, somehow, you'll win the game against them. I think that's kind of our rep right now."

That perception could be enhanced or diminished today when the San Diego Chargers (6-4) visit the Redskins (5-5) at 1 p.m. at FedEx Field in Landover in what many players have called a must-win game.

To them, their playoffs begin today.

"We're at a critical part of the season," quarterback Mark Brunell said. "I would call it a must-win for us to keep our hopes alive. It's been done before. We're a 5-5 team right now. If we make a run and get some momentum, we can get in there. Hope is not lost, but we've got to win a football game."

If the playoffs began today, Washington, which has dropped five of its past seven, would be standing outside the velvet ropes again. The Redskins have the ninth-best record in the NFC - 1 1/2 games behind the Atlanta Falcons (7-4) and Dallas Cowboys (7-4) and two games behind the New York Giants (7-3), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3) and Carolina Panthers (7-3).

Washington's remaining schedule could be considered easy. After today, the team will hit the road against three sub-.500 opponents - the St. Louis Rams, Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles - and get home contests against the Cowboys and the Giants.

Conceivably, the team could win four of the six games and, depending on what happens to the other contenders, earn a playoff berth with a 9-7 record.

Yet several players said they have loftier ambitions.

"We've got our backs against the wall, and we need to at least come out of these final six games 5-1 if we want any shot at the playoffs," running back Clinton Portis said. "We know we're going to be in the game. We've got six games to go out and prove it."

The Redskins put themselves in this position. After winning its first three games, Washington has lost five of seven.

Turnovers have been the key. A defense hurt by injuries and lacking a credible pass rush has just eight take-aways, tied with the Houston Texans for worst in the league.

The Redskins' 15 fumbles are the most in the league, and the team's minus-13 turnover differential is tied with the New Orleans Saints for last in the league. Washington has finished on the negative side of the turnover battle in eight games.

That's what makes today's contest so pivotal for Washington. Win today, and the Redskins are back in the playoff hunt. Lose, and the team's hopes may be shot.

"This game is our most important game," linebacker Marcus Washington said. "We've got to get back on the right track. We've had two close ones and came up on the short end of the stick on both of them. But it's not time to pack up the tents yet. We've still got a lot of football games left. It's a long season, and anything can happen. We've got to stay positive."

Added coach Joe Gibbs: "The best thing we can do is gear ourselves to play the best game we can play against San Diego. ... We've got a lot at stake."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

Keys to the game

Protect the pocket

San Diego enters today's game ranked second in the league in sacks with 33. Fifteen Chargers have registered sacks, which doesn't bode well for a Washington offensive line that has surrendered 26. Quarterback Mark Brunell will need more time if he's expected to pass effectively.

Time to step up

A wide receiver other than Santana Moss must emerge as a pass-catching threat. With San Diego expected to copy the Oakland Raiders' blueprint of rolling a safety over to double cover Moss, Taylor Jacobs, Antonio Brown and Jimmy Faris will have to show that defenses need to be concerned about them, too.

Beware No. 85

Chargers tight end Antonio Gates has a sprained right foot, but he still represents a huge challenge for a pass defense that has dropped to 12th in the rankings. Gates leads San Diego in receptions (56), yards (784) and receiving touchdowns (seven).

Prediction

The Chargers, last season's AFC West champions, are winless in four trips to Washington, but that could change today. San Diego's top-ranked run defense will force the Redskins to take to the air with a less-than-stellar wide receiving corps. Washington's defense, which gives up an average of 3.4 plays of 20 yards or more, has its hands full with the best running back in the league, LaDainian Tomlinson.

Chargers 21, Redskins 13.

[Edward Lee]

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