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Antonio Brown's pic on the cover of USA Today!


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Plus good coverage of the Skins in the sports page as we fight for a playoff spot.

While you're doing your 11th hour Christmas shopping, you might as well stop by the conveinence store and pick up a USA Today. Worth the 75 cents today.

Hail To The Redskins! And Merry Christmas to all!


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In hunt by 'Skin of their teeth

By Steve DiMeglio, USA TODAY

ASHBURN, Va. — The holidays have been anything but happy for the Washington Redskins. The day before Halloween, they lost 36-0 to the New York Giants. Four days before Thanksgiving, they lost 16-13 to the Oakland Raiders and former Redskins head coach Norv Turner. Three days after the turkey feast, a 23-17 overtime loss to San Diego and another former coach, Marty Schottenheimer, dropped the Redskins' record to 5-6.

It looked like another joyless end to a season for Washington, without a playoff berth since 1999.

On Christmas Eve, however, with the NFC East-leading New York Giants (10-4) in town for a rematch, the Redskins (8-6) can take a major step toward wrapping up a playoff spot for the first time since Bill Clinton was in the White House.

"There have been a number of times where this team could have said we're out of it and given up," says head coach Joe Gibbs, who held a veterans-only meeting after the Chargers loss. "It got to the point where our backs were against the wall and the players responded. That's says a lot about their character."

There's also a lot to say about the running game. While rejuvenated quarterback Mark Brunell and Pro Bowl receiver Santana Moss grabbed headlines earlier in the season, a hefty ground game led by tailback Clinton Portis (1,296 rushing yards) has rescued the Redskins.

With consecutive 100-yard rushing games in three consecutive victories, Portis and the offensive line have stirred up memories of the celebrated Hogs and tailback John Riggins. The Redskins are 5-2 when Portis rushes for more than 100 yards.

"Running the ball is what we do well. It's our bread and butter," Portis says. "It's always been the coach's way to win. Any time we can get the ball rolling on the ground, it opens up a lot of things for us."

After consecutive 1,500-yard seasons with Denver, Portis came to Washington in a much-ballyhooed trade but had trouble adjusting to Gibbs' power-based system. With a year's experience, Portis is just 19 yards shy of what he ran for all last season and has two more 100-yard games than in 2004.

Portis rushed for just nine yards in the shutout at the Meadowlands, when the Giants had nearly as many points as the Redskins had rushing yards (38).

"We're being smarter with the football now," Brunell says. "Our defense has played well all year, but the biggest difference is we're running the ball. That makes everything much easier."

Running game on track

Washington's season has been anything but easy. Excluding the Seattle Seahawks, the Redskins have been emblematic of a conference of teams that lack consistently good play. One week the Cowboys are the "it" team, the next week the Buccaneers. Or the Bears, Falcons, Panthers or Vikings.

Now it's the Redskins' turn. After winning their first three games, they lost six of eight. During that stretch, Washington blew second-half leads and lost to the Buccaneers, Raiders and Chargers by a total of 10 points.

But the Redskins turned around their topsy-turvy season — punctuated by a 35-7 drubbing of the Dallas Cowboys last week — and with it, the NFC wild-card race.

Playoff scenarios can be complicated, but the Redskins have made things simple — if they win their two remaining games, against the Giants and Philadelphia (6-8), they will make the playoffs for the first time since winning the NFC East in 1999. The Redskins entered this season 34-46 since 2000, 11-21 the previous two seasons.

With the season on the line, Gibbs committed to running the football, which was a key ingredient to three Super Bowl wins with three different quarterbacks during his first Redskins coaching stint.

Gibbs says he wants a 50-50 split between rushing and passing. It's a formula that works well for him in the months of December and January, when he has a 55-18 lifetime record.

With defenses unable to key on the run or the pass, the Redskins have found success on third down. Last season, they converted just 31.7% of third downs. This season, they're at 42%, sixth in the NFL.

"After the Raiders game, we analyzed our team and thought we were out of balance," Gibbs says. "We were throwing the ball more than we wanted to. We changed our philosophy. We had to get back to running the ball."

Since the loss to the Raiders, the Redskins have run the ball 147 times and passed 97 times to go 3-1. In the first 10 games, they ran less than 50% of the time and went 5-5. Against Dallas, Washington ran 40 times for 171 yards and threw 20 times for 163 yards. Since Gibbs took over in January 2004, that's the kind of attack the team has desired.

"Every offensive lineman in the league is going to tell you that all they want to do is run the ball," center Casey Rabach says. "With a back like Clinton, we just wanted a chance to prove that we could win the physical battle and move the ball on the ground. We finally got the chance."

Giants a tough hurdle to pass

Giants coach Tom Coughlin doesn't need to see any more proof the Redskins have become a run-oriented team after watching film this week. After the Giants gave up 167 rushing yards to Kansas City's Larry Johnson last week, Coughlin expects the Redskins to serve up a large dose of Portis.

"He has the speed and the wherewithal to get the ball in the end zone every time he touches it if everything goes his way," Coughlin says. "I see an offensive line that has done an outstanding job and paved the way for runners to have success."

That's not all Coughlin sees. The Redskins do not live by the run alone. As healthy as he has been in years, Brunell took over for injured Patrick Ramsey in the Redskins' first game and settled a quarterback quandary that tarnished last season.

Brunell, who led Jacksonville to the playoffs from 1996-99 with Coughlin as his coach, has completed 58.9% of his passes for 2,797 yards, just 77 shy of the total Washington threw for last season. He has thrown for 20 touchdowns against eight interceptions in 418 attempts. Last season, Brunell threw for 1,194 yards, seven scores and six interceptions in 237 passes.

"He's doing all of the things to try to take care of the ball the best he can," Coughlin says. "He implements the running game very well. And, of course, he's moving the way he did a few years ago — all the (naked bootlegs) and play-actions and ... what have you."

Brunell's favorite receiver has been Moss, whom the Redskins acquired in the offseason from the Jets for receiver Laveranues Coles. Moss ranks second in the NFC with 1,240 yards and fifth with 75 receptions. He gives the Redskins a deep threat they lacked.

In the first game, his 52-yard reception was longer than any pass play during the 2004 season. In Week 2, Brunell and Moss hooked up for scores of 39 and 70 yards in the game's final minutes to stun Dallas. Their other scoring connections have covered 4, 22, 32 and 78 yards.

In all, Moss has 15 catches of at least 25 yards, which ties him with Carolina's Steve Smith for the NFC lead.

"It's been a great year," Moss says. "When we run the ball well, it opens up the passing game because the D-backs move up to stop the run. If we pass the ball well, it opens up more lanes for the running backs."

None of that happened against the Giants on Oct. 30. On the first play from scrimmage, the Giants' Tiki Barber broke off a run of 57 yards. It went downhill for the Redskins after that.

The Giants are still rolling, with three wins in a row. They can lock up their first division title since 2000 with a win in the final two games. They are led by Pro Bowlers Barber and Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, both defensive ends.

Brunell says the Giants are the best team in the NFC. "You watch the film, there is no weak link on that defense," Brunell says. "Offensively, they do everything well.

"We're in a tough spot, a do-or-die situation. We know what they did to us in New York. But each week is a new week. Regardless of what happened against the Cowboys or the Giants, that has nothing to do with this week.

"We're not the same team we were in New York."


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