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Inspired ’Skins poised for January to remember

WashPost: A season steeped in sorrow, a franchise haunted for years by expensive failure, a fall full of brutal losses and injuries, and a beloved coach in danger of losing his touch -- could all that pain and confusion be redeemed and reversed in just 24 days?

All around FedEx Field most of the crowd of 90,910 stayed, cheering despite the chilly drizzle, waving to the Washington Redskins as they slowly left the field. Usually, Joe Gibbs trots off quickly, but not this time. Oh, no. Maybe that big sloppy kiss on the cheek from assistant coach Joe Bugel let him know how special this was and how many people wanted to share the moment with him.

A season steeped in sorrow, a franchise haunted for years by expensive failure, a fall full of brutal losses and injuries, and a beloved coach in danger of losing his touch -- could all that pain and confusion be redeemed and reversed in just 24 days?

As Gibbs heard the crowd, saw them waving, he knew it could. At the edge of sports odds, near the extremes of personal faith, it had come to pass. The coach stopped near the end zone where Todd Collins's 42-yard touchdown to Santana Moss had given the Redskins a 27-3 lead over Dallas and removed the last sliver of doubt that the Redskins were going to the playoffs.

Gibbs turned slowly to all four FedEx corners, giving a double thumbs-up to the crowd. That wasn't enough. Next, he pointed both index fingers in No. 1s. Finally, he just waved to the throng as if he wished he could hug them all. Even then Gibbs could not bring himself to leave. Twice more this 67-year-old Hall of Famer, on one of his best but most unexpected days, did the slow pirouette again -- two thumbs up, two No. 1s and finally those warm waves of affection.

Who can compare the parades down Pennsylvania Avenue long ago after three Super Bowl wins and, on this day, the seemingly far more modest accomplishment of the '07 Redskins? Yet the deeds of this December have a weight far beyond the Redskins' 9-7 record or their date in Seattle with the Seahawks on Saturday. Since the funeral of Sean Taylor on Dec. 3, at the very moment when they should have been most exhausted, the Redskins have won four games in a row to capture the last NFC wild-card spot on the season's final day. They won with an almost unknown backup quarterback in Collins and with replacements throughout the lineup.

"To think four weeks ago where we were and where we are tonight," said Gibbs, beaming. "Everybody would have said it looks next to impossible."

All those Super Bowl visits, with Gibbs's name written all over them -- that was then. This is now. That was great. But this is awfully good, too. And getting better all the time. Enjoy this moment for its rarity: A team has used pain as fuel and made loss a reason to win. And an unknown quarterback, shackled to the bench for a decade, seized the one last opportunity of his career to lead them. If this doesn't prove to be an inflection point in Redskin history, altering 15 years of mishaps, then what will?

When Gibbs returned to the Redskins four years ago, he said that his NFL past, no matter how glorious, was buried and gone. What he wanted to do was create "new memories," even at the risk of failing spectacularly. Few people grasp one gift of advancing age: a chance to dare more, not less. After all, what's to lose? They can't take your bust out of Canton.

Since Gibbs came back, he has lost more games than he has won. His worst moments, like a 5-11 record last year or his nationally notorious blunder against the Bills on the day before Taylor's funeral, have been excruciating to watch. Yet, with this playoff trip, Gibbs has been deliciously vindicated and his sometimes rumpled dignity has never looked stouter.

"That was the worst moment of my career," Gibbs said of the 15-yard penalty he drew when he called back-to-back timeouts against Buffalo, a mental mistake that set up a game-winning 36-yard field goal. "Sometimes in life, maybe some of the best things happen to you after you have been kind of crushed. . . . I think for me personally there were some things that I needed to go through there. Having the right priorities was a big deal. That was really a defining moment for me four weeks ago. I get kind of emotional talking about it."

Perhaps most important, he shared his thoughts, and his pain, with his team at the time. The day after Taylor's funeral, just two days before a Thursday night game against the Bears, Gibbs called a team meeting. "That's when I thought we came together," linebacker London Fletcher said. "Joe got in front of the team and said that, usually, when you accomplish something great in life, you look back and realize that you just came through great hard times and made it out of a tremendous storm."

From that day to this, the Redskins have prevailed, playing so much better -- despite the loss of five starters in addition to Taylor -- that it is almost unaccountable. "The energy level has gone up so much, it's like the whole team has been hit by lightning," said director of sports medicine Bubba Tyer, in his 36th season with the Redskins. "I've only seen this happen three or four times in all the years here. You can't explain it. But you can feel it."

In the last three games, against the Giants, Vikings and Cowboys, the Redskins have taken complete control. In Dallas's case, the Cowboys wanted to win a franchise-record 14th game. The Pokes played almost every healthy starter until midway in the third quarter when a 20-3 deficit made quarterback Tony Romo and other key Cowboys seek safety -- of body and psyche -- on the bench.

As this game ended, the Redskins gazed at the scoreboard and realized they'd won by 21 -- Taylor's number. "The players were all saying it," Gibbs said. "We don't think it was by accident we won by 21."

This day of vindication, however, extended beyond a team trying to pay tribute to a slain teammate or prove itself worthy of Gibbs's return. "People were bad-mouthing our coach," said Chris Samuels. "But we'll take him back."

The sense of restored dignity can be seen everywhere. A year ago, it seemed that the schemes of Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, had been figured out. Now his unit has been the backbone of the season. His offensive counterpart, Al Saunders, has been teased for two seasons because his "700-page playbook" has produced few points and shown little imagination. Yet as soon as Jason Campbell was injured and replaced by Collins, who has spent seven seasons mastering Saunders's system, the offense suddenly began striking quickly, stretching the field both laterally and horizontally with crisply timed pass patterns.

However, no Redskin has seen his work justified and his faith in himself vindicated as Collins has. The 36-year-old, who went 10 years and two days between NFL starts, may have spent more time under lock and key than Jean Valjean and "The Prisoner of Zenda" combined. Now, he's free and raising a lovely ruckus. "Just a great performance. He's oblivious to the rush and very, very bright. . . . I know we appreciate him," Gibbs said. "His quarterback rating must have been phenomenal."

Oh, just his usual 104.8 (compared with Romo's 34.9), yet slightly below the 107 mark that Collins took into the game.

"It's been dreamlike. I feel like these guys are taking me for a ride. I don't feel like I'm the key," said Collins, who completed 22 of 31 for 244 yards and a touchdown and still hasn't thrown an interception since 1997. "But when my chance came I wanted to be ready. I think I was."

The Redskins' chance almost passed them by this season. No team in burgundy and gold has ever come closer to having the door close on its season, only to kick it open once more and enter January playing -- by far -- their best football. In a corner of the Redskins' locker room, one 300-pound veteran was asked if the Cowboys had given their best, played their hardest. "I'm keeping my mouth shut," he said. "We're going to see those guys again."

Surely, he meant to say the Redskins "might" meet the Cowboys in two weeks, if they should beat Seattle.

Or did he?