LANDOVER, Md. – Here is an age-old question that goes with season-ending NFL games where either so much or nothing at all is riding on the outcome: Can a team switch on the emotion as necessary?
On Sunday, the Washington Redskins played as if they were connected by a giant circuit board in beating the Dallas Cowboys 27-6 at FedEx Field. It was the team's fourth straight win as it rebounded from the lowest point of this tragic season, the combination of Sean Taylor's death and a bitter loss to the Buffalo Bills conspiring to leave Washington at 5-7 in the standings and far lower in psyche.
"Four weeks ago, no one gave us a chance," said Redskins running back Clinton Portis, whose team also lost up-and-coming quarterback Jason Campbell along the way. Now, the Redskins (9-7) will travel to play the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday in the first round of the playoffs.
By contrast, the Cowboys played this game as if they had been wired by Ralph the Handyman, the unlicensed guy who says, "I can fix that kitchen wiring for half the price, no problem."
Dallas finished with a franchise-worst 1 yard rushing on 16 attempts and 147 total yards.
Hey, is that the stove on fire?
That may be why so many Cowboys, starting with coach Wade Phillips, wore tense faces as they admitted to playing "uninspired" football. In the NFL, uninspired often leads to unsuccessful.
"I told our guys and I feel this way, the word for us is 'uninspired,'" Phillips said.
Moreover, the Cowboys haven't played consistently well for a whole game during the entire month of December. On Nov. 29, Dallas took care of Green Bay to get control of the top seed in the NFC. Since then, Dallas struggled to beat the Detroit Lions, lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, escaped a moribund Carolina Panthers team and got handled by Washington.
Not exactly a strong run.
If Bill Parcells were still coaching this team, you get the feeling he'd be doing the rip-and-read routine on his team, his way of ripping the group to the press and having them read it the next day.
Phillips' approach was more lenient, which has worked most of the season, players loving him as the anti-Parcells. At the same time, there is no leniency in the NFL playoffs.
"Basically, I didn't get our guys ready to play," Phillips said. "Still, we've got 13 wins and three losses. We've got a bye … I think we're fine … Yeah, they can turn it on. They'll be ready. I can guarantee that."
Unfortunately, NFL history is littered with teams that couldn't find the on-off switch, let alone make it work. Following the 1996 season, the Denver Broncos cruised to the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs before getting hammered by the Jacksonville Jaguars at home.
"We were very, very uninspired," Crayton said. "You don't ever want to play like that. Yeah, people said we had nothing to play for, but I don't ever like to lose and we did have something to play for. We had a chance to go 14-2 and have the best (regular-season) record in franchise history. We can't play like this. But we've got two weeks to get it right."
Jerry Jones summed up the state of his concern by saying, "It doesn't make a difference how many byes you have if you don't get out and play football."
In fairness, Dallas did very little in this game in the way of strategy and planning, other than to figure out when to rest people. Early on, the most important goal appeared to be how to get enough passes to Witten to have him reach the 100-catch mark for the year (he finished with 96).
Moreover, the Cowboys played without star wide receiver Terrell Owens, top cornerback Terence Newman and center Andre Gurode. By himself, Owens, who is nursing a difficult high-ankle sprain, is enough to change the offense. Furthermore, five of the eight teams that will open the playoffs next weekend lost in their season finale, which Phillips was quick to point out.
"It's a very hard game to play," Phillips said. "I think you can ask Seattle, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh. Those teams that won their division didn't have a whole lot to play for. I thought we would play better than we did and we didn't."
In fact, this game had the kind of emotional drawing power that goes with dropping off dry cleaning and then scratching it off the "to do" list. At least one reporter was so enthralled by the game he spent the second half trying to figure out which 1970s disco queen had recently passed away (June Pointer, for you pop culture devotees).
It was even obvious to Portis, whose teammates continued to honor the memory of Taylor, wearing towels with the Taylor's No. 21.
"I think that a lot of those guys played not to get hurt," Portis said.
That's fair. It also may be smart, in the bigger picture. On Saturday, for instance, the New York Giants played an inspired game against the New England Patriots even though the Giants had nothing to play for from a seeding perspective. The Giants were going to play at Tampa Bay no matter what.
But the Giants took 16-0 New England the distance in a 38-35 game. Perhaps that will inspire the Giants to play well in the playoffs. Then again, the three starters they may have lost for the rest of the season, including center Shaun O'Hara, could prove far more costly.
In other words, it may be easier to fix faulty emotions than broken limbs.
- Wade Phillips