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A look at the Redskins’ path to an NFC East title

ASHBURN, Va. — Yes, the Washington Redskins won, to improve to 6-3, on Sunday.

Even with the victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Redskins were not satisfied. Players expressed frustration and concern, saying they could not keep playing this way.

“Still not overly happy with our performance,” Redskins second-year defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “We gave up [501 yards]. If we’re gonna get to where we want to go, we can’t do that.”

Safety D.J. Swearinger echoed those sentiments. And right tackle Morgan Moses stressed that the offense must get it together.

“It’s time for us to put some points on the board,” Moses said, “and let the defense … not relax, but just take the game off their shoulders.”

Redskins coach Jay Gruden isn’t ready to start scoreboard watching. Here’s what he said Monday: “The good thing … being in first place is we control what we have to control. We don’t have to look at the other teams. If we do our job, we don’t have to worry about anything. Right now it’s just all about Houston and that’s all it is.”

Yes, as the Redskins prepare to play the Houston Texans on Sunday, their mindset is where it must be. That’s in stark contrast to the last 6-3 team, in 2008. Long before the playoffs, then-coach Jim Zorn said he was balancing bringing players back with wanting them fresh for the postseason. They lost six of their last eight and stayed home for the postseason.

Here are other reasons this Redskins team can win the NFC East:

The Redskins are tied for first with the fewest turnovers (seven) and are second in turnover differential (11). They’re tied with Atlanta for the fewest points allowed off turnovers.

That’s what Smith provides: He won’t cost the Redskins games. Smith is not a gunslinger and isn’t about to become one. In a season in which the top teams feature quarterbacks capable of leading aerial assaults, Smith is a relic. The focus often centers around what he can’t do — and the list of knocks has tamed the fan base’s enthusiasm. He and the passing game must be more productive. But there are ways he helps.

Take Sunday’s win over Tampa Bay. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 406 yards, but was intercepted twice — once at the goal line — and fumbled inside the 10-yard line. Smith, meanwhile, threw for 178 yards — oddly enough the third time in four weeks he has hit that exact number — and no picks. The Bucs started nine drives at their own 25-yard line or worse and two inside the 10. The Redskins started one drive at the Tampa 14 (resulting in three points) and two others at their 30 or better.

For the season, the lack of turnovers — and quality special teams play — is why Redskins opponents have started only four drives in Washington territory. That’s third in the NFL — and 19 fewer than their 2017 total. That’s not all due to one position, but it’s what Smith provides.

Punts and coverage

The Redskins’ punter Tress Way has been terrific. The lack of turnovers combined with Way’s punts are why teams start drives 74.7 yards from the end zone, third best in the NFL. The Redskins rank 17th in the NFL in yards allowed per game, but sixth in points.

His gunners, Jehu Chesson and Danny Johnson, deserve credit, too, for how they cover punts. But Way has been a deadly marksmen with his punts.

“They are back spinning and he looks like he’s hitting soft 9-irons into the Masters ninth green for goodness sakes,” Gruden said.

The Redskins have a good, though not a shutdown defense. They have allowed a combined 992 yards the past two games. They rank 25th in yards allowed per drive, but only fourth in points per drive surrendered, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking. That’s the benefit of starting field position.

Remaining games

The Texans and Tennessee are the only teams left on the Redskins’ schedule that have winning records. They have two games left versus the now-struggling Eagles — who have five games left versus teams with winning records starting Sunday at New Orleans.

Dallas has only three road games left — at Atlanta, Indianapolis and the New York Giants — and all are winnable.

But, the Redskins’ final seven opponents have a combined 27-35 record. They face one offense, Houston, which is in the top half of the league in touchdown passes. Four of the seven opponents rank in the bottom 10. The Redskins’ three losses have occurred against teams in the top five of this category. They’re much better equipped to handle the sort of offenses they’ll see over the final two months.

Returning players

The Redskins hope to get back several key offensive players in coming weeks.

Left tackle Trent Williams, who has missed the past two games with a dislocated right thumb, might miss another two games. But that would leave him ready for the final five.

Running back Chris Thompson, who can add some sizzle to the passing game with his ability to make defenders miss, remains out with a broken rib. It’s still painful and still leaves him unable to get much sleep. When he returns remains a guess, but at this point he’s expected back.

There’s also wide receiver Jamison Crowder, who is trying to return from a sprained ankle but missed his fifth straight game Sunday.

Washington should benefit from getting these players back for a stretch run.

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