What style points? NFC East-leading Redskins win with rugged approach

LANDOVER, Md. – As Brett Maher’s 52-yard field goal attempt bounced off the left upright, the Washington Redskins’ home crowd erupted in jubilation.

Their team had managed to hang on for a 20-17 victory over the hated Dallas Cowboys. In so doing, they improved to 4-2 for their best start in two seasons and also boosted their early lead in the NFC East to one and a half games.

The victory didn’t come pretty. Washington’s offense managed just one touchdown, struggled mightily on third downs and endured quarterback Alex Smith passing for less than 180 yards for the second time in as many weeks. A 24-carry, 99-yard rushing day by running back Adrian Peterson was largely the unit's saving grace. And a defensive performance that included two recovered fumbles (one for a touchdown) and holding Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott to a season-low 34 rushing yards on 15 points essentially saved Washington as a whole.

Bruising rushing attack, punishing defense: It has the ring of an old-school recipe for success in the NFL.

But there's no such thing as style points, Washington’s players and coaches will remind you. And this approach proved effective enough to give the team its second win in as many weeks.

“That’s what Redskins football is now,” said cornerback Josh Norman, whose unit entered Sunday’s game ranked second in the league. “All that stuff in the past is in the past. It’s exciting to be a Redskin right now. These are the trenches. … It’s what we’re here for: to change that mindset and mentality of it all. You want offense, but end of the day, that defense? That mindset? Naw, man. We win football games.”

Echoing Norman, safety D.J. Swearinger said, “We’re a new team. We’re here to win, and we’re going to keep working and try to get to the top.”

The Redskins’ place atop the NFC East seems most unlikely, especially given preseason expectations that the defending Super Bowl-champion Eagles would build on last season’s success, not to mention the predictions that the Giants would bounce back under new head coach Pat Shurmur.

Meanwhile, Washington’s most eventful development of the offseason involved the decision to let Kirk Cousins depart via free agency after the acquisition of a less-prolific replacement in Smith.

And next to no one would have envisioned Washington leading the division, or that the defense would serve as the calling card after the team got embarrassed in Week 2 by the otherwise-struggling Colts and then throttled to a record-setting tune in Week 4 by Drew Brees and the Saints.

But just as they held Cam Newton and the Panthers in check last week, the Redskins' defensive players found themselves charged with compensating for offensive shortcomings on Sunday. With just less than five minutes left on the clock, Washington’s defense delivered when linebacker Ryan Kerrigan stripped Dak Prescott at his own 1-yard line and fellow pass-rusher Preston Smith scooped the ball and stepped across the goal line for a touchdown.

Then, when the offense failed to milk the remaining 1:30 off the clock after a Dallas touchdown that cut the score to 20-17, the defense took the field again and preserved the win. With time also working against them, the Cowboys lined up for a 47-yard field goal before a penalty on the long-snapper turned that into the 52-yard attempt that Maher couldn't convert.

Now it's the Redskins setting the pace at 4-2 with the Cowboys and Eagles sitting at 3-4 and the Giants bringing up the rear at 1-5.

Washington, however, must be the most difficult division leader to figure out.

Through six games, the Redskins have shown they can win big (by double digits over both the Cardinals and Packers), lose ugly (to the Colts and Saints) or win gritty (close calls against the Panthers and Cowboys).

They can beat anyone and lose to anyone.

Smith can look like the savvy passer who since 2011 is the third-winningest quarterback in the league behind Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. And at times it’s clear why Kansas City had no problem parting with him and rolling instead with Patrick Mahomes. That was the case at times Sunday, as he missed wide open receivers and too often displayed poor poise and questionable decision-making. 

The Redskins' defensive front – led by their first-round picks Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne – is certainly improved. Gashed for years while relying on bargain-bin signings, Washington is finally seeing its investment in the trenches paying off.

Good fortune might be going in Washington’s favor. As mentioned, thus far, it looks like a down year in the NFC East. A win at New York next Sunday would further strengthen the Redskins’ standing. Washington also figures to benefit from the Eagles being seemingly plagued by a post-Super Bowl identity crisis and Cowboys being trapped on a bad roller coaster ride of a season. And as the schedule currently stands, of their remaining opponents, only the Texans (4-3) own a winning record.

It’s a long season. The tide can shift in any direction. But the Redskins just might be solid enough to ride that wave if they can maintain their defensive consistency and discover a little more on offense.

Their approach might not be pretty, and they won’t be a popular pick for a contender. But that doesn’t matter to the these players, whose team hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2015.

“Have we ever been favored at any point for anything?” left tackle Trent Williams asked with a chuckle.

“Nope,” Norman said a short time later when posed with Williams’ question. “It’ll always be that way. Redskins always get the short end of the stick. It’s just how it’s been. So why would I expect anything different this year? Our mindset: we know what we’ve got, middle finger up to you when we get to the end of the race because we know what we have here. We really don’t care about what they say or what they do.”

Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

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