It's incredible what a three-game winning streak can do for a team at this point in the season.
Back in Week 9, the Washington Redskins suffered a painful home loss to the Carolina Panthers -- their third defeat in a row. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, who had won just five home games through his three-year tenure with the team to that point, indicated during a news conference that he was already looking ahead to 2013. Though he later backtracked, things looked bleak for the Redskins.
Since then, Washington has been reborn. Monday's victory over the New York Giants was the Redskins' third straight triumph; at 6-6, they have a legitimate shot to make a run at the playoffs, and could even catch the Giants in the NFC East.
How did this happen?
It's easy to point to the feet and arm of rookie sensation Robert Griffin III, who does deserve much of the credit for the Redskins' turnaround. But another important factor has been their significant improvement on defense over the past three weeks.
Though the unit has been missing a few key players -- most notably Brian Orakpo, Washington's best pass rusher, whose season was ended by injury in September -- the Redskins' defense has played soundly since the team's Week 10 bye. The Redskins have kept the ball from being thrown over their heads and have done a much better job against opposing offenses in the red zone. Monday night's performance, in which the Giants were limited to 16 points despite having the ball for more than 33 minutes, was one of Washington's best defensive outings of the season.
Yards allowed are not a true indication of how a defense is preforming. Points allowed, red-zone success and third-down conversions allowed in the red zone are the true barometers of defensive health, and the Redskins have improved in all three categories since returning from their bye week. Even during their win over the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving, when the Cowboys scored 31 points, the Skins' defense played a big role, preventing Dallas from making the big play, allowing RG3 to build a huge 28-3 first-half lead. Before the bye, a tendency to give up big plays had been a major issue for Washington's secondary.
Still, Washington has the second-worst third-down defense in the NFL, and ranks 31st in yards allowed after the catch. The unit is never going to be a shutdown defense, based on its talent level; RG3 and the rest of the offense will have to keep carrying the bulk of the load for Washington. But the Redskins' defense can continue to play a complementary role; after all, every stop they earn presents the offense with another chance to build a lead.
At this time of year, every team has injuries to overcome; every team is dealing with talent issues. Real playoff contenders know how to compensate for their deficiencies. After the bye week, the Skins have demonstrated a clearer understanding of how to deal with their problems.
The Redskins have four games left this season: at home against the Baltimore Ravens, on the road against the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles, and at home against the Dallas Cowboys. Washington must win all four games and hope the Giants stub their toes. This is a possibility, as New York has a rough road ahead, though the Giants do tend to play their best when their backs are against the wall.
However, the Skins can't worry about the Giants. They just need to focus on what they're doing, and make sure they keep improving. The Redskins have to keep getting critical defensive stops, like they did Monday, when they prevented a fourth-quarter third-down conversion after they'd seemingly let New York have its way in such situations all night.
The Redskins are not going to win their final four games solely behind RG3. Nor are they going to win out behind solid defensive play alone. But they've got a good chance if the two elements can continue to play a complementary role.
A month ago, few people would have thought the NFC East race would be so compelling down the stretch -- least of all, Mike Shanahan.
THINGS I LOVED
I loved what Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn had to say after his team won Sunday. It had nothing to do with the Chiefs' victory over the Carolina Panthers; rather, it was about the lives we lead and how we interact with one another on a daily basis, as Quinn reflected on the tragic circumstances surrounding the murder-suicide perpetrated by teammate Jovan Belcher. Still dealing with their raw emotions, the Chiefs went out and played their best game of the season. I plan on using Quinn's words as a constant reminder in my life moving forward.
I loved how Charlie Batch proved me wrong on Sunday. I had said on NFL Network's "First on the Field" that the kid in Cam Newton's "NFL Play 60" commercial might have a better arm than the Pittsburgh Steelers' backup quarterback. Charlie, I'd like to offer my sincere apologies. You proved me wrong -- and the way your team reacted to you after beating the Baltimore Ravens showed me why the Steelers have kept you on their roster. Well done.
I love that rookie quarterbacks are chasing the playoffs. As I mentioned, RG3 has the Washington Redskins in full playoff mode, and he's joined by Andrew Luck with the Indianapolis Colts and Russell Wilson with the Seattle Seahawks. Both Wilson and Luck got much needed wins on the road this past weekend, greatly enhancing their teams' playoff chances. At this point of the season, it's safe to say all three should no longer be considered rookies. All three players have shown exceptional leadership ability and mental toughness, which they've passed along to their teammates.
THINGS I HATED
I hated watching the Arizona Cardinals offense play -- again. The unit did not convert a third down all day against the New York Jets, while rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley struggled, and the Cardinals' offense wound up making this section for the second week in a row. The Cards have a playoff-caliber defense, but as I wrote last week, they have a bad offensive line and no quarterback, and that's a bad combination. The season started off with four wins for the Cardinals, but now they have the longest losing streak in the league with eight straight -- and it might extend to 12.
I hated how Christian Ponder maintained his downward path. Ponder has continued to show a lack of progress, as the Minnesota Vikings have won just one of their past five games. On the season, Ponder is averaging 6 yards per pass attempt; this is far from getting it done, but he's been even worse over the past five weeks, barely cracking 5 yards per attempt. Even when Adrian Peterson has an incredible outing like he did against the Green Bay Packers last week, the Vikings struggle to make plays in the passing game. With rookies RG3, Wilson and Luck lifting their teams to playoff contention, Vikings fans must be wondering when Ponder will be able to do the same for them. At 6-6, Minnesota would greatly improve its chances with better play from the second-year quarterback.
I hated watching Ryan Broyles leave the field after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Last season at Oklahoma, the Detroit Lions' rookie receiver did the same thing to his other knee, yet overcame the injury to make a solid NFL debut. The Lions' season has seemed snake-bitten from the start, but losing to the Colts on Sunday was a killer, especially considering how the Lions' defensive line, which they've invested heavily in, could not get a sack or pressure on the final drive of the game; the unit allowed Luck's mobility to give him the edge on that last play. The Lions will have to regroup and re-evaluate this offseason, to determine the causes behind their horrible 2012.
THINGS ON MY MIND
» It's worth noting that Washington's offense held the ball for almost 11 minutes in the fourth quarter against the Giants on Monday. A time of possession imbalance always makes it seem as if a defense has played well. When the Giants had to punt with a little more than 4 minutes left in the game, I had the sense that they would never see the ball again. Had New York not been facing fourth-and-16, Tom Coughlin might have not punted, but with two time outs remaining, the two-minute warning to come and his team down by one, Coughlin rolled the dice, gambling that his defense could get one more stop.
» If every Houston Texans win comes another defensive injury, they also seem to provide a new sense that the team has found a way to overcome such setbacks. Over the past few weeks, the Texans have proved they're mentally tough and ready to deal with any obstacles they might yet face.
» The Miami Dolphins played the New England Patriots tough, but the Pats finally closed out a game in the fourth with their best drive of the season, running right at the Fins and controlling the ball for more than seven minutes. It was the kind of drive a real playoff team must have during the season.
» Rookie Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden played his best game of the season on Sunday. Despite facing pressure from the Oakland Raiders' blitzes, Weeden still made some really good throws. He kept getting hit, and he kept getting up off the ground, showing he can handle the heat. Like the Patriots, the Browns put together a long, game-ending drive in the fourth, led by Weeden.
» The St. Louis Rams might be the San Francisco 49ers' kryptonite. The two teams played another five-quarter game on Sunday, but this time, the Rams' defense made the plays and notched a St. Louis win. Amazing that the Rams can play the 49ers so tough. It's a tribute to the job Jeff Fisher and new general manager Les Snead have done with their rebuilding efforts.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.