WASHINGTON – The Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins, a pair of 3-6 teams on losing streaks, spent the week convincing themselves that they're still in the playoff hunt.
The winner of their game on Sunday therefore gets a bonus: yet another week of believing that the postseason is indeed a realistic goal.
The loser will sink to the bottom of the NFC East, where any mention of the p-word will be met with a well-deserved round of laughter.
"We have a chance to control our own destiny," Washington defensive end Stephen Bowen said.
Note the subtlety in Bowen's words. The Redskins don't actually control their own destiny — they're just hoping for a chance to be able to do it.
"There's a lot of teams that have sat in our position and made it to the playoffs and made it to the Super Bowl," Philadelphia defensive end Trent Cole said. "There's always hope. This is the NFL. Any given Sunday, anything can happen. I've played eight years in the league. I've seen some of the craziest things happen. Like I said, we're not going to give up."
Nice try, Trent, but it's not true. No 3-6 team has ever made it to the Super Bowl. It is true that 3-6 teams have made the playoffs, but it's happened only three times since the current postseason format was established in 1990.
Only the Carolina Panthers (2-7) have a worse record in the NFC than these two teams. The Eagles have lost five straight. They're giving rookie quarterback Nick Foles his first NFL start because Michael Vick is sidelined with a concussion. Andy Reid's job status is tenuous at best in the homestretch of his 14th season as coach.
The Redskins have dropped three in a row. Their pass defense is among the worst in the NFL. The offense revolves around rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, the player mostly responsible for what little success the team has had. Coach Mike Shanahan is 14-27 in his third season in Washington.
Yet both teams harbor hope because the NFC East is struggling as a whole. The New York Giants (6-4) looked ready to run away and hide with the title until two straight ugly losses brought them back toward the pack. The Cowboys (4-5) are just a game ahead of the bottom-dwellers.
"The rest of the NFL definitely helped us out," Griffin said, "by having the teams in our division lose."
So the speculation has begun that a 9-7 record — or maybe even 8-8 — will be enough to win the division. But the Eagles and Redskins would have to go 5-2 the rest of the way just to get to 8-8, and neither team has shown any signs that such a turnaround is imminent. Washington hasn't won back-to-back games all season. Philadelphia started 2-0 before losing six of seven.
But they can dream.
"If we win out and play great football and fulfill all our goals, no one will remember the beginning of the season," Washington defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. "We definitely look at last year's Super Bowl — the Giants and the Patriots were both low-ranked defenses and they got hot at the right time and they played well enough to make that run.
"We can win out. We really feel like we can, and anything short of that will be disappointing."
Records aside, Sunday's game had been marked on the calendar as the first meeting between Griffin and Vick, two agile quarterbacks often mentioned in the same breath.
Instead it's Griffin vs. Foles. First-round pick vs. third-round pick. Griffin has accomplished so much in his first nine games that he hardly seems like a rookie, but Foles hadn't thrown a regular season pass until last week after Vick got hurt.
But that's another warning flag for the Redskins, who have lost eight in a row against rookie quarterbacks, the longest such streak in the NFL since at least 1950, according to STATS.
"We haven't had great success against young guys, so if anybody in this locker room's not going out there treating this guy like he was an NFL starting quarterback, then they're crazy," Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall said.
Candid words, but not quite as brutally honest as those spoken by Shanahan after the Redskins' last game, when the coach said it was time to start "playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come."
But as quickly as he had thrown in the towel, Shanahan scrambled to retrieve it, saying the next day that the playoffs were still a viable goal. Now the coach says that every game the rest of the way "is kind of like a playoff game" with no margin for error.
If that sounds like a tough sell, imagine what will be said Sunday, when Reid and Shanahan step to their respective podiums after the game. One gets to say: "We're still in it." The other has to explain a freefalling, 3-7 team.
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