CLEVELAND -- They know, and don't let them tell you otherwise. All you have to do is watch the Washington Redskins right now to know this is a team that can smell its opportunity. After a 38-21 victory over the Cleveland Browns here Sunday, with backup quarterback Kirk Cousins playing in place of injured star Robert Griffin III, the Redskins are 8-6, tied with the New York Giants for first place but in possession of all the tiebreakers they need to put them in first place ahead of the Giants or even the Dallas Cowboys. And they knew it as it was happening. They knew the Giants were getting clobbered in Atlanta. The Redskins came off the field after their game well aware of the fresh circumstances.
"They gotta chase us now!" defensive end Stephen Bowen bellowed. "Everybody's gotta chase us now!"
That includes the Giants, who now head into the final two weeks needing the Redskins to stumble if they're going to defend their division title. It includes the Cowboys, who had a tough matchup Sunday against the Steelers and who play in Washington on the final week of the season. The Redskins no longer need to watch any scoreboard but their own, though they don't deny that keeping an eye on their rivals' fate has helped fuel their current five-game winning streak.
"You preach to have that tunnel vision, but I know I like to feed off that outside stuff," Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield said. "I came into this week, I knew the Giants had two tough road games these next two weeks, and knowing that I think makes you feel like you do have that opportunity if you can take care of your own business."
There was a lot driving the Redskins on this day. The announcement Saturday night that Cousins was getting his first career start because Griffin's knee hadn't healed enough to let him play made everybody sit up and take notice. Cofield said the defense used that announcement as a "rallying cry," convincing itself it had to play its best game of the season in case the backup quarterback couldn't deliver the same kind of offensive performance the starter's been delivering all year.
Cousins said he saw it as an opportunity to show he could start and win a game in the NFL -- something he felt people may have had reason to doubt after he was drafted in the fourth round to be a backup. He had his family with him, and quite a few college friends from Michigan State who drove in for the game once it appeared he'd be starting it. And after he was 0-for-3 with an interception to start the game, he felt he had an opportunity to show something even more.
"When you get down like that, you've got to have character," Cousins said. "You've got to find it within yourself. You've got to dig deep. That's what I'm most proud of, and that's what I'm most proud of about our team -- the way we bounced back after a slow start. It's a good feeling. I said to my dad [Saturday] night, 'It's either going to be the highest of highs or the lowest of lows.' We're certainly feeling the highs right now."
Whatever the Redskins are feeling right now, they should bottle it, because it's working for them. There was no stress Sunday morning about Cousins starting in place of Griffin. Cousins himself took the second bus to the stadium, sauntered onto the field about two hours before game time and warmed up lightly, same as he always does. As Redskins left tackle Trent Williams walked onto the field around 11 a.m. ET for his own warmups, he was surprised by a question about the team's chances with Cousins starting.
"Kirk?" Williams said. "Kirk's good. We've been practicing with Kirk all year. We know he was a steal in the first round, and he'll play well. We're not worried about Kirk."
It was 329 yards and two touchdown passes later that Cousins left the field, trailing his teammates by a few minutes because he'd been stopped for interviews, and allowed himself a moment of solo celebration in the tunnel leading back to the Redskins' locker room. He skipped once, clapped his hands together and let out a "Whoo!" to no one in particular.
"If I die tomorrow," he said later, "I'll be able to say I started a game in the NFL."
And won it, for a team that just six weeks ago was 3-6 and hoping, but is now 8-6 and looking at a division title, the playoffs and possibly even more as a very realistic possibility.
"As soon as you start winning," wide receiver Pierre Garcon said, "everything feels more realistic."
Everything feels possible for the Redskins right now. Cofield said coach Mike Shanahan "had us repeat about 30 plays in practice this week" and is "coaching this team like it has a long way to go." The players like it, though, because the result is that they show up Sunday with complete confidence in what they're doing. Williams said they knew the Browns were a backside pressure defense that would sell out to stop running back Alfred Morris, and as soon as the Redskins were able to establish play-action and roll out Cousins, the offense would click. That's exactly what happened. The defense apparently heard that "rallying cry" of which Cofield spoke and came up with two big interceptions in the second half.
And while this was all happening, while the Redskins were handling the part of the playoff-fate equation that was in their hands, they knew what was going on in Atlanta. By the time their game ended, the Giants' game had already gone final, and the Redskins left the field aware that they were in first place. They need only a win next week in Philadelphia and then at home against Dallas the following week to call themselves NFC East champions. Won't be easy, but knowing it's possible has been the fuel for the winning streak that has them, finally, where they want to be.
"The early reports of our demise were greatly exaggerated," Cofield said. "We're a hot team right now, but we also know, if we lose next week, it dashes a lot of our dreams. So we've got to make sure we stay focused and hungry."
Hungry is exactly the way these Redskins have begun to look at the most critical time of the year. The hunger with which they're playing is the reason it's all in their hands now.