LANDOVER, Md. -- Lingering with family inside the underbelly of FedExField early Monday morning, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III wasn't ready for this to end. It was 1 a.m., yet the rookie wore a content smile, as if he had nowhere left to go.
Nothing could have been more distant from reality, of course, since it seems, in the wake of Sunday's 28-18 win over the Dallas Cowboys, that Griffin's wild ride is only just beginning. There is still so much left to do, even if there is also so much worth soaking up.
"It's just amazing what has happened since the bye week," said Griffin, referencing the Redskins' first seven-game win streak since 1996. "It's a total change. And it's just a testament about how the NFL can go sometimes."
Ah, yes. Here we now are, settled into that strange and glorious week of the NFL season when 12 fortunate teams walk the line between celebration and determination. So go ahead, RG3. Catch your breath. The real race is about to begin.
No doubt, the Redskins' win over the Cowboys was worthy of appreciation, particularly when it comes to running back Alfred Morris' 200-yard performance, which proved, quite loudly, that yes, this team digs deeper than Griffin. A defense stepped up with three interceptions, and an offensive line protected its slightly hobbled quarterback.
Those are the qualities, especially at this time of year, that make a team scary, as Griffin noted. But it still guarantees nothing. Not in a year that has seen so many good teams lose to lesser competition. Not in a span that has seen such weekly parity.
"There's only one team that's happy at the end of the season, and that's when you take care of your opportunities," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. "We'll be focused. It's a four-game season. You work to get here, but there's only one team that's happy at the end of the season. We want to be that team."
So where do we go from here? That's a beautiful question, isn't it?
For starters, we can now finally get answers from certain squads, like the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans, after a regular season of success. We have long wondered whether either team has a playoff run within it, even as both remained atop the standings throughout 2012.
We can now watch as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers go into that special zone they each know so well. Those three men have combined for 37 playoff starts and five Super Bowl rings -- and all three are back in the dance again.
The San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens also lurk as powerful contenders, while Andrew Luck's Indianapolis Colts and Russell Wilson's Seattle Seahawks join the Redskins with their inspiring stories, fueled on the field by the first trio of rookie quarterbacks since 1950 to make the playoffs in the same season. As for the Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals, well, let's just wait and see -- and leave it at that for now.
After all, you never know what can happen next, what it will take to surge toward New Orleans. The Redskins provide a perfect example of that.
Just eight weeks ago, with his team stuck at 3-6, Shanahan talked about turning the season into an ongoing "evaluation" process before clarifying one day later that he wasn't implying the year was over. Now, we're left watching as a team has survived a knee injury to its star quarterback while getting the kind of boost from a rookie running back that might be difficult for any defense to stop.
"I think it's just a mindset change with the team," Griffin said. "Every game mattered. We knew we couldn't lose. We had to take care of our business, and we couldn't worry about anything else."
It's funny what can happen when a team takes on that kind of mentality. But a mentality doesn't guarantee anything, as we learned from the New York Giants' inability to put together one of their own signature late-season surges. This game also requires execution, which remains the most important factor of all heading into the playoffs.
Teams are banged up right now, as we saw with Griffin, who clearly still struggled to play after suffering an LCL sprain earlier this month. But this is the time to power through it, just as the Redskins did against the Cowboys.
"You can see that he was hurting a little bit, even though he won't admit that to me," Shanahan said. "It shows you what type of competitor he is, to play at the level he did and orchestrate that type of performance, being hurt a little bit."
Griffin didn't appear to be in much pain hours after this game ended. Quite the opposite. Instead, he was a player renewed by the future ahead of him and content with the accomplishments behind him.
That is, after all, the beauty of this time of year. But now, we move forward into Monday, when the Redskins' first NFC East title since 1999 moves into the rear-view mirror, and capturing their first NFL championship since 1991 becomes the objective.
Can they get there? Can they win it all? Nobody knows the answer, but they'll at least get their shot. So go ahead, RG3. Catch your breath.
Now, about that Super Bowl ring.
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.