WASHINGTON -- The Washington Redskins were 3-6 on Nov. 4 and had just lost what coach Mike Shanahan had proclaimed a "must win" against the Carolina Panthers, who entered the game 1-6.
And while Shanahan can massage it all he wants -- and he's tried to, in many different ways -- he clearly no longer had realistic postseason goals when he spoke after that game.
Shanahan said, among other things: "You lose a game like that, now you're playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come."
"He was having a moment of frustration," defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. "But I think the whole team knows exactly where he stands, and where we stand is a testament to that."
Shanahan clarified his remarks two days later, telling the players in the final meeting before the bye-week break that the playoffs remained a possibility. Still, even a veteran such as Cofield couldn't envision, say, an NFC East title.
"I thought we needed to win the next game, but I definitely did not look that far in advance," Cofield said.
Six victories later, the Redskins (9-6) are definitely not a team playing "for years to come." They're playing for this year's division championship, attempting to become the first team since the 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars to rally from 3-6 to the playoffs.
What a sight it will be, therefore, when the Redskins and Dallas Cowboys (8-7) meet Sunday night, a game flexed to prime
The winner takes the NFC East. Dallas would be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss. Washington can lose and still get a wild-card spot, but only if the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings lose earlier in the day.
"It is two great franchises playing hard to beat one another, and that is good stuff," Redskins tight end Chris Cooley said.
Shanahan said he will tell his players that it will be a game they'll remember for the rest of their lives. The fact they've been playing on the brink for a month and a half should have them well prepared.
"I think they get used to the pressure," the coach said Monday. "Over the last six weeks, they knew every game was do-or-die, and they're used to that scenario."
The Redskins turned it around by following the leadership of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. His demeanor has lifted the entire franchise.
Now they can clinch their first division title since 1999.
"Everything we've been working for comes back to this weekend, taking advantage of what we've done over the last six weeks," Shanahan said. "It really doesn't mean anything unless we take advantage of our game versus Dallas."