- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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When the regular season opened Sept. 4, the Redskins didn't look completely ready for prime time.
First-year coach Jim Zorn was making his debut as a playcaller. Quarterback Jason Campbell wasn't crisp making his reads and running the offense. The offensive line struggled. Of course, the Redskins were going against the Super Bowl champion Giants, whose defense can make a lot of offenses look offensive.
Washington's fortunes have improved considerably since that 16-7 loss in the Meadowlands. The Redskins have recorded home victories over the Saints and the Cardinals, and their offense is showing signs of explosiveness.
Now, the Skins embark on their most important two-game road trip of the season. It starts Sunday in Dallas and concludes in Week 5 in Philadelphia. If they win at least one of those games, the Redskins will establish themselves as contenders for the NFC East title. Losing both will make them 0-3 in the division and extreme long shots.
The NFC East is the beast of the NFL. Just ask the Packers and the Steelers. After their narrow Monday night victory over the Eagles in Week 2 , the Cowboys dominated the Packers six days later at Lambeau Field. The Eagles, also on only six days' rest, then played more physically than a powerful Steelers team. Through three weeks, the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants rank as the league's three best teams.
But the Redskins don't have to hide. Despite their division, it's not out of the question for them to have a 10-win season. Like their division-mates, the Redskins play four games against the NFC West and four against the AFC North. Barring unforseen events, any NFC East team could go 3-1 or better against each of those divisions. In the two non-common games, the Redskins already have beaten the Saints and get to play the woeful Lions. If things go right, the Redskins could think about an 8-2 non-division record.
The key to their season is doing something positive in the NFC East. They can't afford to go 1-5 in division play. A split in the next two weeks could make them players in the division race because they finish the regular season with three NFC East home games between Nov. 16 and Dec. 21.
It won't help that defensive end Jason Taylor will miss Sunday's game following an emergency procedure on his leg. Taylor was acquired when the Redskins lost defensive end Phillip Daniels for the season. With Taylor, the Redskins had six sacks in the first three games. They might have to do some blitzing to force Tony Romo into making uncomfortable throws.
The Cowboys come in with all the confidence in the world. They rank No. 1 in offense, averaging 440 yards a game. They are outscoring opponents 32-21 on average. More than anything, though, they are playing loose and having fun. Coach Wade Phillips has set up a great environment in which this team thrives.
Dallas' defense is aggressive and hard-hitting. The offense has confidence. Romo continues to grow as a quarterback and a leader. The running game looks unstoppable.
Still, this is a great rivalry. The Redskins know that. They just have to get one win in the next two weeks to solidify themselves as one of the four beasts in the NFC East.
1. Green Bay Packers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Packers fans were stunned at how the Cowboys dominated their team Sunday night. Although QB Aaron Rodgers didn't have a bad day, the Packers as a whole looked outclassed. Now coach Mike McCarthy has to get his team to regroup for an important game against the Bucs -- which would have been even more interesting if the Bucs had traded for Brett Favre in the summer.
The Packers preferred moving Favre out of the NFC, which was wise. If you think Rodgers has pressure now, imagine how much more pressure would be on him if he left Tampa with a 2-2 record and a loss to Favre and the Bucs.
Brian Griese did a remarkable job of rallying the Bucs to an overtime victory over the Bears in Week 3. So the Packers' secondary, known for its pressing, man-to-man coverage, will have to see whether second-year CB Tramon Williams can handle Al Harris' starting job while Harris recovers from a lacerated spleen.
2. Philadelphia Eagles at Chicago Bears: A year ago, the football world was giving thoughts to what it would be like if QB Donovan McNabb played in his native Chicago. McNabb wondered whether the Eagles, who drafted Kevin Kolb in the second round of the 2007 draft, were ready to move him. Wisely, McNabb warmed over the Eagles with his arm and his charm, and now he's one of the reasons the Eagles have restored themselves as top contenders.
The Eagles' offense is banged up . McNabb has a sore chest. Halfback Brian Westbrook has a tender ankle. It will be interesting to see what strategy coach Andy Reid uses against the Bears' defense. Griese exhausted Bears defenders with the two-minute offense in the fourth quarter this past Sunday. The strategy worked so well Bucs coach Jon Gruden stayed with it in overtime and won the game. Thus far, the Bears' defense has been spotty. It played great against the Panthers in Week 2 but allowed Griese to throw for more than 400 yards in Week 3. McNabb might consider trying to tire the Bears out.
3. Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers: The Ravens enter Heinz Field with the AFC North lead and a rookie quarterback. Something has to give. Joe Flacco was respectable in home division wins over the Bengals and the Browns, but Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's blitzing schemes could give him headaches. LeBeau might have to resort to more blitzing because the Steelers' defense is down starting defensive linemen Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has his own worries. He has been banged around pretty hard over the past two weeks and now faces a Ravens defense that's very capable of bringing the heat. This figures to be a physical, low-scoring game.
4. Minnesota Vikings at Tennessee Titans: This should be one of the more physical games of the day. The Titans have established themselves as one of the best defensive teams in football during their 3-0 start. Defensive linemen Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch have been almost unstoppable. They spend as much time in the backfield as their opponent's fullback.
For various reasons, both teams have gone to backup quarterbacks. Kerry Collins has been throwing the ball well now that he's replaced Vince Young. Because of Collins' strong play, Young will have to work as a backup once his knee heals. The Vikings' Gus Frerotte managed a 20-10 victory over the Panthers this past Sunday in his first start replacing Tarvaris Jackson. The fun part of this game will be watching how RB Adrian Peterson does against the Titans' defense. To help their run defense, Titans coach Jeff Fisher replaced middle linebacker Ryan Fowler with Stephen Tulloch.
5. Arizona Cardinals at N.Y. Jets: To counter years of road woes, the Cardinals stayed on the East Coast after their Week 3 loss to the Redskins. They spent the week in D.C. trying to bond as a team. It will be interesting to see if it works.
The Jets had their own problems on the road in Week 3. Favre looked old and banged up against the Chargers on Monday night. He limps back to the Meadowlands knowing fans might turn on his new team if it gets off to a 1-3 start. This is a must-win game for the Jets.
New Orleans Saints
6. San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints: Normally, you would think this would be an easy game for the Saints. But nothing is easy for the Saints this year because of injuries, and coach Sean Payton has to worry about an upset. He already knows he goes into this game without three offensive starters -- wide receiver Marques Colston, tight end Jeremy Shockey and guard Jamar Nesbit -- and he has 13 players on the injury list.
Reggie Bush has gotten off to a decent start, but the burden of the offense is falling more on him and Drew Brees because of the injuries. With a defense that is giving up 27.7 points a game, the Saints know they have to outscore teams. The 49ers enter with a surprising offense run by J.T. O'Sullivan, a former Saints castoff.
7. Houston Texans at Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars pulled off a great victory in the final seconds against the Colts this past Sunday. Now, if they take care of business against the division-rival Texans,
they can get back into the AFC South race. The Texans, who are 0-2, have to put aside the distraction of Hurricane Ike and must get something going quickly or their season will be over early. Because of Ike, they have started the season with three road games. Quarterback Matt Schaub had a bad game against the Titans in Week 3, and some think he might be fighting to keep his starting job. League-wide, though, division games have been strange this season. In division games in normal years, the home team usually rules. This year, the home team is only 11-10. The Jaguars have to be cautious.
8. San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders: The only intrigue in this game is the ongoing drama involving Raiders coach Lane Kiffin. The fact that he's still coaching despite rumors of Al Davis' planning to fire him is amazing. Team officials are feuding with reporters and columnists. Despite the distractions, Kiffin has kept the team playing well during its 1-2 start. This game could be ugly, though. LaDainian Tomlinson usually plays his best football against the Raiders. During his career, he has averaged 122 yards and a rushing touchdown a game against them. With defensive tackle Gerard Warren expected to miss the game because of a pectoral injury, the Raiders have only two legitimate defensive tackles, and they might wear down if the Chargers' offense is on the field too long. The Raiders have a bye week after the game, but the rumors will keep circling that it could be a bye-bye week for Kiffin.
9. Buffalo Bills at St. Louis Rams: Scott Linehan has to worry he also might be a bye-week casualty if the Rams lose and start 0-4. They have been outscored on average by 29 points a game. At least Linehan is going down swinging. He benched starting quarterback Marc Bulger (who was sacked 11 times during the first three weeks) and as many as five starters on defense to get a spark. Trent Green takes over to run Al Saunders' offense. The Bills are 3-0 and playing with confidence. It was a huge lift for the Bills' offense to come off a shaky first-half performance and beat the Raiders with a frantic fourth-quarter rally this past Sunday.
10. Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers: Once again, it's reality-check time for the Falcons and quarterback Matt Ryan. They proved they can win a certain type of game. Against the Lions and the Chiefs, two of the worst teams in the league, Ryan needed only a few completions to win. The Falcons' formula against bad teams is to run the ball with Michael Turner and let Ryan hit a few passes. It won't be that easy against the Panthers, and the Falcons know that.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Are the Redskins legitimate contenders? It depends on how they weather a critical two-game road swing, which starts Sunday in Dallas, writes John Clayton.