Happy Thanksgiving, Washington Redskins fans.
After an impressive 38-31 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, the Redskins now sit at 5-6, are in second place in the NFC East, and are very much alive in the NFL playoff race.
Here are our five takeaways from Thursday's game:
1. Once again, Robert Griffin III rises to the occasion. It was said many times before Thursday's game, and rings truer now: The bigger the occasion, the better Robert Griffin III plays. In his Texas return, with family, friends and former coaches watching him, Griffin got his introduction to the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry. Add in the pressure cooker of being on the national stage, and he delivered what may have been the signature performance of his spectacular rookie season thus far.
Sure, we can talk about the numbers (20/28, 311 yards with four touchdowns passes), but this game -- this moment -- felt more like a test of intangibles rather than one of skills. To travel to his home state on a short week and face a Dallas team that had to win to keep their playoff hopes alive is no easy task. Throw in the fact that the Redskins have never beaten the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, and you're talking about a near-impossible situation in which to succeed.
And yet, Griffin rose to the occasion, just as he's done numerous times this season. His first half was spectacular. After he and the offense got off to a slow start in the first quarter, he led them to touchdowns on four consecutive possessions in the second quarter. This bears repeating: He led the offense on four straight touchdown drives in the second quarter.
What was most impressive was how Griffin responded after throwing his fourth quarter interception that gave the Cowboys new life. He shook it off on the next drive, calmly leading the offense into field goal range to set up what was essentially the game-clinching score.
His inner-drive, his competitiveness, and intense desire to succeed are so evident, even to the casual observer. He's a difference-maker in every sense of the term, and is the primary reason why the Redskins have a chance to play for first place in the division against the Giants on December 3.
2. That's what an offense looks like when receivers make plays. Of course, Griffin had a ton of help from his supporting cast in this game. In fact, this game might may have been the best example of how Mike Shanahan expected his skill position players to perform back in the offseason.
It's not exactly breaking news, but Pierre Garcon was a difference maker. On his 59-yard touchdown, the pass was thrown high and behind him, and he was somehow able to reach back, grab the pass, and keep his balance. From there, he showed the ability to gain yards after the catch that the Redskins coveted when they signed him in March, pulling away from the Cowboys defensive backs and racing into the end zone. It was a spectacular play, and perhaps the most impressive of the afternoon by the Redskins offense.
Another benefit of Garcon's presence is how it changes the dynamic of the entire receiving corps. Aside from his own playmaking ability, Garcon allows the other receivers to fill roles they're more suited for. Aldrick Robinson can just be the speedy receiver who is almost exclusively a downfield threat. Santana Moss can remain the slot receiver who's the go-to guy in clutch situations. Joshua Morgan and Leonard Hankerson can be the possession receivers who help move the chains. No one has to be a hero, and it allows for each guy to do what he does best.
It seemed like each guy had their turn to make a big play; Robinson used his speed to get downfield for an early touchdown, Garcon had his catch-and-run, Moss made tough catch after tough catch, and even Hankerson made a drive-extending catch on Washington's game-clinching drive. It was a balanced performance all the way around, and makes you wonder just how good this group can be when healthy and firing on all cylinders.
3. Alfred Morris' role was just as important, too. Perhaps the only downside to Griffin's stellar rookie season is that it is somewhat overshadowing one of the best stories on the Redskins this year - the ascension of fellow rookie Alfred Morris.
Morris ran for 113 yards and a score Thursday, and is now only 18 yards shy of being the first Redskins running back to reach 1,000 rushing yards in a season since Clinton Portis in 2008. He continues to show why he is such a perfect fit for this zone-blocking scheme; his patience, vision, and decisiveness to the hole are such that he can be so productive in this offense without necessarily having breakaway speed.
All of that was on display once again against the Cowboys. Morris' impact on the game may not have been as eye-popping as Griffin's, but it was still just as important. His ability to get good chunks of yardage on first and second down put the offense in manageable situations, opening the entire playbook for Kyle Shanahan.
Many of the big plays on offense were set up by Morris runs, too. The play that preceded the long Robinson touchdown? A 10-yard run by Morris. The play that preceded the Santana Moss touchdown at the end of the first half? A 16-yard Morris run to the Cowboys' six-yard line to allow the Redskins to take a shot at the end zone.
It's easy to remember Griffin's highlights from this game, but Morris is the one who did the groundwork for those big plays - both literally and figuratively.
4. Tale of two halves for the defense. The first half performance by the Redskins defense was probably their most impressive of the season. They forced two turnovers, got pressure on Tony Romo, and held the Cowboys to just three points.
The Cowboys offense looked like it was on the verge of self-destruction. With Romo making mistakes, balls being fumbled by receivers, the home crowd booing (and even chanting the opposing quarterback's name), it was up to the defense to shut the door and finish the job.
But it's never that easy, is it?
The second half was eerily similar to how things played out against the Saints in Week 1; the Redskins allowed the other team to get back into the game by giving up quick scores, which is the one thing you can't do with a big lead late. Romo passed for 344 yards and three touchdowns in the second half alone. The Redskins had just enough cushion to withstand the comeback, but they can't take the next step as a team (at least this season) until they are able to quell those rallies before they get going. The offense bailed the defense out late in the fourth quarter with a field goal to put the game out of reach, but the score shouldn't have been that close.
The question now is, with five games left, how optimistic should one be about this defense?
Well, we know that when they're at their best, they can apply pressure in a myriad of ways and they can generate big plays off of turnovers. But when they're at their worst, it's not pretty. Given their personnel deficiencies this year, turnovers might be their only hope of slowing opposing teams down the rest of the way. Jim Haslett can come up with unique ways to get to the quarterback and force mistakes, but the fact remains that they don't have enough skill on the back end to really hold up in pass coverage against talented offenses.
They've only been able to put together a complete game once, and that was against the Eagles. With the way the Cowboys game started, it looked like the defense may have turned the corner. Instead, they turned in a head-scratching second half performance. It'll be interesting to see where they go from here.
5. Kai Forbath gets his first real test - and passes. While it was very impressive that Kai Forbath had hit nine consecutive field goals coming into Thursday's game, he had never really been put in a pressure situation. Kickers are defined by those big moments, and Forbath finally got his first taste of that against the Cowboys.
With the Redskins clinging to a seven-point lead late in the fourth quarter, they needed just one more score to essentially ice the game. The offense was able to drive into field goal range, and set up a 48-yard attempt - a makeable distance, but certainly not a gimme. And we've seen in the past how Redskins kickers have had a tough time hitting those types of kicks from much closer range (see Cundiff, Billy).
But Forbath put it in between the uprights, nailing the biggest kick of his young career. It put the Redskins up by ten points, and put the Cowboys away. Forbath's been a pleasant surprise since taking over for Cundiff, and as the games get bigger from now on, he'll surely be counted on to make those types of kicks in clutch situations.