'Skins sharpen playoff picture

Washington caps sweep of rival, ties for final NFC spot

Redskins 35 Cowboys 7



LANDOVER -- What began as a fuzzy playoff outlook for the Washington Redskins is slowly gaining clarity.

After 14 weeks that included a downward spiral with six losses in an eight-game span, the Redskins staked their claim in the race for an NFC postseason berth by walloping the visiting Dallas Cowboys, 35-7, yesterday before a record crowd of 90,588 at FedEx Field.

The dominating effort lifted the Redskins (8-6) to their third consecutive win, pushed them two games over .500 in December for the first time since 1999 and gave them only their fourth season sweep of the Cowboys in the 45-year history of this contentious series.

More importantly, losses by the Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons put Washington into a four-way tie in the race for the sixth and final NFC playoff spot.

"We're still alive," said Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell. "We're building something. You're starting to see some signs of a Redskins team that is going to be good this year and in years to come."

If Washington finishes with the same record as the Cowboys, Vikings or Falcons, the Redskins would qualify by a head-to-head tiebreaker over Dallas and by a conference-record tiebreaker over Minnesota (7-4) and Atlanta (5-5). Washington is 8-2 against NFC opponents.

Washington is two games behind the New York Giants (10-4) in the NFC East. The Giants will visit FedEx Field on Saturday, and the Redskins finish the regular season in Philadelphia on Jan. 1.

The only depressing note for the Redskins was the loss of right guard Randy Thomas, who broke his right ankle in the fourth quarter and is out for the season. Ray Brown will replace Thomas.

"This is the smoothest we've played," coach Joe Gibbs said. "It was one where everything went our way. ... It ended up being one of those nights you dream about."

The Redskins' defense set the tone by harassing Dallas quarterback Drew Bledsoe with seven sacks, three interceptions and a forced fumble.

Bledsoe, who completed 16 of 29 passes for 153 yards and threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jason Witten late in the game, finished with a passer rating of 42.0, his second worst of the season.

Washington limited the Cowboys to 216 yards of offense, and Dallas crossed midfield just twice in its first 10 possessions.

"We knew what we had to do, and we were determined to get it done," said defensive end Phillip Daniels, who recorded a career-high four sacks and recovered a fumble. "The last game [Sept. 18], they max-protected a whole lot, and it was 100 degrees in there. Today, it was our weather, and they stayed pretty honest for the most part. We were just able to get there."

The offense was nearly as stellar. Running back Clinton Portis posted his third straight 100-yard rushing game and seventh of the season with 112 yards on 23 carries, and Brunell (12-for-20 for 163 yards and a passer rating of 124.8) atoned for a three-interception, first-half display in last week's 17-13 win against the Arizona Cardinals by throwing for four touchdowns in the first half.

H-back Chris Cooley was the recipient of three of those scores, making receptions of 30, 8 and 2 yards for the first three-touchdown game of his career.

The offense turned three Dallas turnovers into 21 points and went 4-for-4 in the red zone.

"I think we learned a big lesson from last week," said Cooley, who caught six passes for 71 yards. "We got into the red zone and we scored touchdowns, and that's what we need to do to win. We need to take advantage of turnovers when we can, and that's how you win games."

Mike Sellers recorded his seventh touchdown in 12 touches, and backup running back Ladell Betts opened the second half with a 1-yard touchdown plunge for the Redskins.

"I'm psyched," said wide receiver Santana Moss, whose 42-yard catch in the second quarter set up Brunell's second touchdown toss to Cooley. "We come into games like today knowing that we can be explosive on offense, and that is exactly what we did."


Giants @Redskins Saturday, 1 p.m., chs. 45, 5, 1430 AM, 106.7 FM Line: Redskins by 3

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