ASHBURN, Va. – The team that was supposedly riding the coattails of Robert Griffin III kept right on winning when those coattails disappeared.
It can no longer be argued that the Washington Redskins are overachievers who were prospering only because of a multidimensional rookie quarterback who stubbornly refuses to give up. They look legitimately like a first-place team — which are now are, having won five straight to put themselves in control of their playoff fate.
With backup Kirk Cousins leading Sunday's 38-21 win over the Cleveland Browns, Washington (8-6) now has the same record as the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants atop the NFC East and holds the tiebreaker over both clubs. The Redskins next visit the struggling Philadelphia Eagles (4-10) before hosting a potential all-or-nothing regular season finale against their biggest rival, the Cowboys.
"I've never underestimated the importance of Robert," offensive lineman Kory Lichtensteiger said. "That guy has put the team on his back many times throughout the year, and we'd certainly like to have him back whenever he does come back on the field.
"But it's nice, it's really good, for Kirk to step in and to perform like that. It's good for the offense as a whole to kind of tell the football world that we're not just a one-trick pony of having a triple-threat quarterback that can do everything and that's the only reason we're winning. Robert certainly is the man, but being able to show that you're capable without him is a pretty fulfilling thing for us."
Griffin missed his first game of the season with a sprained right knee and is awaiting the doctors' OK to see if he can return for the Eagles' game. Without him, the Shanahans — head coach Mike and offensive coordinator Kyle — had their finest hours Sunday since arriving in Washington.
Kyle Shanahan has enjoyed a fun and productive season as a play-caller, experimenting with new concepts because of Griffin's ability as a passer and a runner, but he made the most of Cousins' talents and adjusted masterfully against the Browns, using play action and bootleg to counter an aggressive defense.
"A lot of three-and-outs to start that game," Lichtensteiger said. "But thankfully the coaches really hunkered down and figured out what was working."
The rest of the roster assembled by Mike Shanahan is coming together at the right time. A defense that couldn't stop anyone in September or October has clamped down in the second halves during the winning streak — even though linebacker Brian Orakpo, defensive lineman Adam Carriker and safety Brandon Meriweather were lost many weeks ago for the season with injuries.
The offensive line, theoretically the weak spot headed into the season, has helped anchor the NFL's top rushing attack even though right tackle Jammal Brown never suited up because of a hip injury. There's concern this week, however, because center Will Montgomery sprained his left knee in Sunday's game and right tackle Tyler Polumbus suffered a concussion. Polumbus' backup, Jordan Black, was suspended for four games Monday for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing substances.
The roster has more its share of rookie contributors: quarterbacks Griffin and Cousins, running back Alfred Morris and punt returner Richard Crawford. Kicker Kai Forbath, who counts technically as a "first-year player" instead of a rookie because he spent a season elsewhere on injured reserve, is one 3-pointer shy of tying the NFL record for consecutive successful field goals to start a career.
Shanahan has had his slip-ups, among them his poor choices in quarterbacks during his first two seasons in Washington and his statement this year that the playoffs were essentially a lost cause at 3-6. Fortunately, his players didn't believe the latter — he backpedalled the next day, anyway — and now the team is on the cusp of its first playoff berth since 2007.
"I understood we were going to struggle the first couple of years," Shanahan said. "We didn't have a football team. It was getting the right guys on the football team where we felt like we could make a run. I told our football team at the beginning of the year that, 'You guys don't know it, but you guys are a lot better than you think you are.' They've obviously been proving that now."
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