Jay Gruden finally had a moment to catch his breath.
He stood at the corner of the locker room, where his
Washington Redskins danced, sung, embraced and celebrated the unlikeliest of NFC EastChampionships.
The moment washed over Gruden. He took a deep breath and mouthed a sentence to no one in particular.
“I can’t believe this team.”
The Redskins – one year removed from a 4-12 finish – had just defeated the
Philadelphia Eagles 38-24 at Lincoln Financial Field, capping one of the most surprising runs in the NFL. Now, the Redskins (8-7) will host a home playoff game, against the NFC’s No. 5 seed. That likely means a showdown with either the Seattle Seahawks (9-5), who are one of the NFL’s hottest teams, or the Minnesota Vikings(9-5). Washington will be in the postseason for the first time since 2012, thanks to a blend of young talent and veteran additions.
One of those sat 10 feet away from where Gruden soaked in the moment. In front of his locker with his elbows resting on his knees and his head in his hands, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, formerly of the Denver
Broncos, did the same.
It was just then starting to hit him: He would be in the playoffs for the third straight year. He knew all about the losing culture that permeated through the Redskins before he signed in the offseason.
“The difference is, we expect to win now,” Knighton told USA TODAY Sports. “We never doubted ourselves. No matter how the season started and no matter how bad things were going, this was the first goal on the list and we checked that off. Now we got another goal that we’re going to attack. We believe that we can do this. We really do. This organization is going the right way now.”
Though the Redskins still have several issues they need to overcome before they can be considered legitimate contenders for championships, there’s no question Saturday’s clinching of the NFC East is a massive step forward.
There are two men in particular who deserve significant credit for Washington’s ascension: general manager Scot McCloughan and starting quarterback
Kirk Cousins, both of whom are in their first seasons in those respective titles.
So what exactly has McCloughan’s addition meant to the franchise that had become synonymous with dysfunction and failure?
“Clearly, a lot,” defensive end Ryan Kerrigan told USA TODAY Sports. “He just comes through and we win the division? That tells you everything you need to know. He brought in a lot of quality players and an understanding of what needs to happen to get things done.”
As linebacker Will Compton added to USA TODAY Sports: “Energy, man. He brings a lot of energy and passion. You feel that these guys want to play for a guy like him.”
Cousins’ merits are more obvious. He continued his hot streak Saturday night, completing 31 of his 46 passes for 365 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Over the last nine games, Cousins has been the catalyst for Washington’s rise to the NFC East crown. And the principal reason why is because he has corrected his biggest weakness from earlier this season: turnovers.
In Washington’s first six games of the season, Cousins threw eight interceptions. Over its last nine, he threw only three.
Over that nine-game stretch, most importantly for Washington, the Redskins collected six victories.
But as the Redskins saw Saturday night, Cousins isn’t still without faults.
In one of the most head-scratching plays you’ll ever see, Cousins inexplicably wiped points off the board when he took a knee six seconds before halftime from the Eagles six-yard line, rather than to spike the ball to leave enough time for a field goal attempt.
The gaffe didn’t cost the Redskins, who led 16-10 at the time, in the long run, but that’s a play that a franchise quarterback simply can’t commit.
But Cousins’ improvement has proven that the Redskins can compete for division titles with him as their starter – something that seemed almost impossible at the start of the year. Washington’s relative health, and the emergence of star tight end
Jordan Reed – who hauled in nine passes for 129 yards and two scores Saturday – give Cousins ample weapons to threaten defenses.
“I’m very satisfied to see how the table have turned this year,” Cousins said after the game. “Now we look forward and say: ‘Where can we go from here?’ and ‘How high can we take it?’ ”
His teammates say the very top.
“He definitely made the difference,” offensive tackle Trent Williams said. “We wouldn’t be in this playoff push without him. I can tell you that much.”
Added Reed: “I think he’s one of the best QBs in the league and he can be one of the best. He can get us to a Super Bowl. I trust Kirk.”
They know just how crazy that may sound, but they swear they believe it. Gruden’s face made that much clear.