Cards face 'Skins in mad scramble for playoff spot
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When Jay Gruden was asked about the mad scramble that has become the NFC playoff chase, the Washington Redskins coach had to laugh.
"That's what it is and that's what it's going to be," Gruden said with a chuckle. "The last five weeks of the NFL season are always going to tell the tale. You want to be in position where you're not relying on everybody else. Fortunately, we're in a position where we don't have to worry about people losing; if we take care of our business we'll get in. That's where you like to be."
As for Washington's opponent on Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals, they'd like to be almost anywhere than the situation they find themselves in at a disappointing 4-6-1. They are winless in four of their last five games and even if they run the table during the next five weeks, there is no assurance of earning a postseason berth.
"Really, it is just this week," coach Cardinals Bruce Arians said. "You just take them one at a time. I think once we win one, we'll be fine. I think we'll add them up at nine and I think you have a great shot still, because we're going to be playing some of those teams that are going to be in the same spot we're in."
Washington, which is getting an MVP-type season out of quarterback Kirk Cousins, is in a much more enviable position than Arizona. The Redskins might sit in third place in the NFC East, but at 6-4-1, they presently own the No.6 seed in the conference and are in control of their own destiny.
"As long as you're in the hunt, you have something to play for," Gruden said. "A lot of things are going to happen. We're in a positon where we're going to take one game at a time and when the dust settles, we'll see if we're good enough to make it or not. But the minute you start looking at other teams and looking past a team is when you'll be getting ready for the draft and not playing in the playoffs."
Cousins has been consistent all season, but he's been on a tear in his last three games. In back-to-back wins over Minnesota and Green Bay and a close loss to Dallas, he has completed 84 of 116 passes (72.4 percent) for 1,086 yards (362 per game) with eight touchdowns and no interceptions.
One prevailing trend has been Cousins completing big chunk plays to his litany of weapons on offense, from DeSean Jackson and Jamison Crowder, tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis and slot man Pierre Garcon.
"On any team, big plays, explosive plays are going to help," Cousins said. "It's a statistic that can be critical to winning football games, so we continue to try and find ways to get chunk plays when we can."
Jackson and Reed are each dealing with left shoulder injuries that could limit their availability come Sunday, although Arians said he fully expects both players to test his top-rated overall defense, which is allowing just 294 yards per game and is second against the pass, allowing 195.1 yards per game.
Cousins stands to earn a jackpot in the offseason when the Redskins either sign him to a long-term deal or place him on another one-year franchise tag. Either way, Cousins knows he can't let up now with so much left on the line for the Redskins.
"I think you never feel comfortable in this league, you're always trying to push," he said. "You just know how competitive it is and how easily you can get knocked off if you're not at the top of your game at all times. With five games to go, it just feels like there's a lot left to be done, a lot left to prove and it starts by coming to Arizona and being ready to go."
The Cardinals have absolutely no room for error as their hopes of reaching the postseason for a third consecutive season continue to fade. They may not have the service of speedy wide receiver John Brown, whose cramping hamstrings are thought to be the cause of the sickle-cell trait. Cornerback Patrick Peterson is also hurting because of a knee injury suffered in last week's loss at the Falcons.
One good thing going for the Cardinals is the continued torrid play of second-year running back David Johnson, who leads the league in yards from scrimmage and has recorded 13 touchdowns for the second straight year.
One more loss, however, and Arizona's playoff chances are likely kaput. That will feel like a major letdown after the Cardinals cruised to a 13-3 record a year ago and an appearance in the NFC Championship.
"Every year is so different. Sometimes you just roll right through it and you win games," Palmer said. "You win by large margins; you win close ones all the time. Sometimes you just can't catch a break and feel like the ball is not bouncing your way. I don't compare it to the talent or who we had last year, it's just the way the ball has bounced this year and the way things have gone.
"We're in the thick of it. There is not one guy in that locker room that thinks, 'aww man let's start thinking about next year.' There are a lot of weird records right now in this league. There are a lot of teams in the NFC in the hunt, and we're one of them. That's all that matters. This Sunday is really all that matters."
The Cardinals know they will have their hands full with Washington's second-ranked offense, which is averaging 426.4 yards a game.
"You've got to try and stop the run, for sure," linebacker Kevin Minter said, referring mainly to Washington's rookie running back Robert Kelley. "If you don't get a hold of him, it's going to be a long game. They've got talent across the board, offensively, and they've got a quarterback that's hot.
"We better have some pride. We earned that No. 1 defensive ranking and if we want to keep it, we better come with it on our mind come Sunday ready to hit someone in the mouth."