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Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kirk Cousins offering surprisingly deft QB play

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As Week 16 unfolded, it became apparent that the Redskins' Kirk Cousins is going to start a playoff game -- and the Jets' Ryan Fitzpatrick is on the verge of joining him.

This is an axis-tilting development.

They aren't like Denver's Brock Osweiler, Cincinnati's AJ McCarron or Houston's Brian Hoyer and Brandon Weeden, who are in similar spots because of injuries or unsettled situations that led to in-season changes. Those guys are piggy-backing a bit on the heavy lifting others did before they got their respective chances. (However, Osweiler took a huge step out on his own against the Bengals on Monday night. He snapped the Broncos' second-half scoring drought and was crisp in overtime as Denver clinched a playoff berth. Osweiler left no doubt about his short-term -- and maybe long-term -- future as coach Gary Kubiak named the 25-year-old QB the Week 17 starter.)

Cousins and Fitzpatrick were Week 1 starters who not only have taken most of us by surprise, but also helped lead teams few, if any of us, thought would be a threat -- as late as a month ago. The doubt and skepticism will remain until they win a playoff game or two, but they've put themselves in position to do so.

Think about this: Is it a slam dunk that Minnesota or Green Bay could knock off Washington at FedExField on Wild Card Weekend? Nope. The Jets would have a real shot playing at Houston, Kansas City or Denver in the opening round of the playoffs, too.

Both teams would have a chance because Fitzpatrick and Cousins have played well enough -- especially now -- to win in the postseason. Plus, each has solid offensive lines, big-play receivers (and tight end Jordan Reed in Washington) and running backs to score points. The Jets' defense is deep and relentless. The Redskins' unit has holes, but its strengths can exploit the weaknesses of some potential playoff opponents.

Cousins has thrown nine of his 26 touchdowns in the past three games -- all victories. He's averaged more than 325 yards passing and only thrown one interception during the winning streak. He has just 11 picks on the season.

It's fair to say that Cousins hasn't faced a winning team during Washington's run of success. Of the Redskins' eight victories, none have come against teams with winning records. Washington is the only team in the NFC East that can finish with a winning record.

So Cousins and his team haven't merited much respect yet. However, the Redskins are playing a solid brand of football at the right time, and they're in the playoffs.

You like that. If you don't, you deal with that.

Castrol EDGE Clutch Performers:

As for Fitzpatrick, he's playing better than he has during any point of his 11-year career. Jets coach Todd Bowles told me a few weeks ago that Fitzpatrick finally is in a mental place where he's playing without much worry. Fitzpatrick, who is with his sixth NFL team, had always been reluctant to be consistently aggressive as a passer. Until now.

The Harvard product always has been well-liked because he's just an ordinary guy -- a slight if you said that about a lot of other Ivy Leaguers. However, his Jets teammates love him because he's given them little to not love. He's a leader. He's managed a lot of personalities. He's played through thumb surgery. He's played well.

Fitzpatrick has already thrown a career-high 29 touchdown passes. He has 12 interceptions, but just one during the current five-game winning streak. He also has two rushing touchdowns, giving him 31 total -- the same amount as Cousins, who has five rushing TDs to add to his passing totals.

Fitzpatrick and Cousins are similar in that they are tough, excitable guys who have gotten better as the season has progressed. They've also been underdogs throughout their NFL careers and taken advantage of opportunities given to them through odd circumstances.

In Washington, coach Jay Gruden opted for Cousins over Robert Griffin III in August. It was not popular, even though Griffin had fallen out of favor. Cousins was shaky in the first couple months of the season, but he has settled in.

Fitzpatrick earned the job by default after projected starter Geno Smith got his jaw broken in a training-camp fight with a teammate. It allowed Fitzpatrick to gain traction under his offensive coordinator, Chan Gailey, who was his head coach in Buffalo.

Gailey has played to Fitzpatrick's strengths and diversified an offense that has weapons galore at running back and receiver. The Jets are 10-5, and if they defeat the Bills on Sunday, they'll be in the playoffs.

Cousins and Fitzpatrick also have made us take a big-picture look at the quarterback spot. Seasons have been damaged by injuries at the position (see: Dallas, Indianapolis) or have simply been disappointments despite the presence of high-priced signal callers (Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, San Diego, Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans, the other New York team).

There is no arguing that the elite quarterbacks (guys like Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton) have been worth their club's hefty investments. Their teams -- possibly excluding Pittsburgh, which must win on Sunday and get help to qualify for the playoffs -- can reach the Super Bowl, in large part because of the quarterbacks.

However, some clubs have found ways to win by asking their quarterbacks to do enough -- that is, to be a game-manager-plus.

Alex Smith has helped lead Kansas City to nine straight victories. Cousins and Fitzpatrick have their teams on winning streaks at the right time, too. Do these guys strike fear in opponents? Probably not. Should they? Probably.

It's not the time to doubt anyone.

A lot of teams have not been able to handle quarterback issues. Some quarterbacks have not been able to handle football issues.

Cousins and Fitzpatrick unexpectedly have handled both, which is a sizeable accomplishment in itself.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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