Friday, December 28, 2007

Let's Talk About Playoffs (and More!)

It’s getting closer to 4:15 Sunday afternoon, which means it’s getting closer to the beginning of the end of the Redskins’ regular season. It’s also getting closer to 7:00 Sunday evening, which means it’s getting closer to the beginning of the Redskins’ postseason. Yes, the playoffs are all but inevitable, as the much-doubted victories in the Meadowlands and Minneapolis were, in the end, inevitable.

So let’s take a look at what awaits the Skins once the playoffs begin. We know there will be a first-round trip to Seattle. Winnable game. Even more winnable than the second-round game there in 2005, when the Redskins were well on their way to the conference championship before Mark Brunell’s charmed season finally came to an end (still a satisfying season, though).

After that would be a trip to Dallas and the “top seeded” Cowboys. Completely winnable game. As winnable as the game in Dallas earlier this season, when the Redskins were well on their way to upsetting the darling Boys in front of their own fans (including my aforementioned relative) before Jason Campbell’s charmed magnificent performance came to an end. With perhaps a surprisingly wily veteran QB manning the helm this time around, and with the playoff-pressure-susceptible Tony Underwood-Simpson-Romo still nursing that ”famous thumb”, it’s easy to see how this time around would be different.

Next? The NFC championship in Green Bay. Yes, Green Bay, where this past fall the Redskins were well on their way to derailing the Packers’ homefield-throughout dreams ten weeks early before Santana Moss’ bad day got worse and such hopes ultimately ended. Again, it’s easy, very easy, to see how this time around the result would be very different and, just like that, our boys are bound for the…well, you know.

Impossible? Not entirely. Wouldn’t it be a great finish to what could under-statingly be called a tumultuous season?

Incidentally, all NFL athletes (and possibly all athletes of all professional and college sports) should read Wilbon’s article from today before giving postgame interviews. It summarizes nicely what the Redskins have endured this year and might make such athletes think twice before whipping out the massively clichéd “overcoming adversity” line to describe everything from a deficit resulting from shoddy play to rainy weather (now if we could just make a dent in the use of “It is what it is”).

Travel prevented me from following the Capitals v. Penguins save for the occasional cell phone update, but, disappointing OT loss and injuries to Brent Johnson and Alex Ovechkin aside, there is good to take from the game, and to apply to the season as a whole.

Last year’s December 11 shootout loss to the Penguins is often cited as the moment a promising season started tanking (and the blowing of a four-goal lead at home was truly galling). Oddly enough, such an overtime loss this season (losing a one-goal lead late and all) is an incremental sign of progress in a season whose incremental goal is just making it to the playoffs. I know, it sounds strange, but it was this very type of game that just a month and a half ago would have resulted in zero standings points for the Capitals.

Taking one point out of Pittsburgh and tying the Lightning for not-worst-in-the-East is a small-yet-significant step for a team still gradually recovering from that unpleasantness of late October and pretty much all of November. Plus, the Southeast division lead is all of a sudden less than ten points away. With still more than half the season to go, the third (third!) overall seed in the conference is not that ridiculous a goal.

The points continue to accumulate for the team, even if it’s at too slow of a pace for some fans. Sill, the fact is, they’ve gained at least a point in 9 out of their last 12 games. That’s true, tangible progress, and a sure road to the playoffs. Even from not-quite-last place, it’s not that far off. We won't delve into the details of the Caps' own march through the conference yet. That can wait until April.

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