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Maybe the only NFC East team not widely expected to be a contender for the division title was the Washington Redskins. A second straight road win over one of the teams picked to finish ahead of them would all but prove that belief to be false.
In a few weeks, the Redskins have gone from overlooked to among the NFC’s elite, and they would further facilitate that transformation Sunday by sending the Philadelphia Eagles deeper into the division basement.
An ugly end to the preseason and a mediocre season opener, not to mention a leader in Jim Zorn who had never been a head coach, led many to think Washington would be at the bottom looking up to the other NFC East stalwarts.
While the New York Giants were coming off a Super Bowl win and Dallas was last year’s division champion, Philadelphia was considered a contender after winning its final three games of 2008, making some key offseason additions and having Donovan McNabb back at full strength.
However, the Eagles (2-2) go into Week 5 residing in last place while the Redskins (3-1) have won three in a row and are coming off one of most surprising wins of the season. Washington held on for a 26-24 victory at Dallas last Sunday after entering the game as a double-digit underdog.
“All four teams are solid teams, and it’s still anybody’s division,” Zorn said. “Our goals are still ahead of us, and we made that so by beating Dallas in Dallas.”
By comparison, Philadelphia lost 41-38 at Dallas in Week 2.
New York leads the division at 3-0 while the Redskins and Cowboys are tied for second place. However, Washington is the only NFC East team to win a division game on the road and it won’t have to play another one after this week.
“Everybody has to look at the Redskins in a different light now,” running back Ladell Betts said. “This is a great team. We can beat anybody. We can play with anybody.”
Few believed that less than a month ago. Washington had to play a five-game preseason and lost the last two by a combined 71-6, then was held to 209 yards of offense in a 16-7 season-opening loss to the Giants.
Third-year quarterback Jason Campbell and the Redskins offense have improved significantly in the last three weeks. Washington scored at least 24 points in each of those games, averaging 386.3 total yards while committing only one turnover.
Campbell has a 108.0 rating in that span, completing 68.0 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and no interceptions.
Facing the Eagles defense could be Campbell’s toughest test yet.
Washington may be forced to pass more because Clinton Portis, who ranks fifth in the NFL with 369 rushing yards, will be up against a league-best Philadelphia run defense that allows 53.8 yards per game and 2.6 per carry. Plus, the blitzing schemes of Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson have resulted in a league-high 17 sacks - 13 in the past two weeks.
Philadelphia, however, allowed Kyle Orton to throw three first-half touchdown passes in a 24-20 loss at Chicago last week.
McNabb fought through a bruised chest to throw for 262 yards and a touchdown, but struggled in the second half as Philadelphia was held to three points.
Brian Westbrook sat out with an ankle strain, but participated in a full practice for the first time in two weeks on Friday and appears likely to play.
“He was able to get through everything,” Eagles coach Andy Reid said. “It looked like he did it well. We will just see how he feels later today and then tomorrow. Most importantly, we’ll see how he feels on Sunday.”
The Eagles certainly appeared to miss the Pro Bowl running back. They had first down inside the Bears’ 3-yard line on two second-half drives but failed to reach the end zone, running three times from the 1 before turning the ball over on downs during a fourth-quarter possession.
“We don’t slight the loss (Sunday), but at the same time, in this league, you can’t dwell on the loss,” Reid said. “You have to learn from it, and you have to move on quickly. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.”
A return home could help any lingering pain go away. Philadelphia’s two wins have come at Lincoln Financial Field, where it’s allowed a total of nine points and 346 yards, compared to 65 points and 677 yards in two road losses.
The Eagles offense could be in for another big day at home against a short-handed Washington defense. Zorn all but ruled out defensive end Jason Taylor, who missed last week’s game due to an ankle problem, and cornerback Shawn Springs appears likely to sit out with a calf injury.
These teams have split the last six meetings after the Eagles had won seven straight. Washington won 20-12 in Philadelphia last season, and will gain even more recognition as a top team if it can win there again Sunday.
“We’ve earned a little respect,” Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot said. “But we’ve got another NFC East game this weekend that we’ve got to win. We ain’t going to jump the gun.”
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