Contention in the NFC East has had one notable exception in recent years. The New York Giants have been Super Bowl champions. The Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles have frequently been in the scramble for a division title.
And then there has been the Washington Redskins, lonely and in last place.
Not this year. This Redskins (8-6) now control their own destiny, courtesy of a New York defeat and their own 38-21 victory over the host Browns on Sunday. They achieved the lopsided win despite the absence of starting QB Robert Griffin III, who watched with an ailing knee as fellow rookie Kirk Cousins performed sensationally in his first NFL start.
The Redskins have won five in a row and are fighting for a playoff spot. That feels good to veteran wide receiver Santana Moss.
"It's been a long time and it's great to be back [in the postseason chase]," he said. "It's great to be sitting in this seat and say we're playing for something more than just the last two games."
Meanwhile, the Browns and their fans received a cold slap in the face on the unseasonably warm afternoon in December. And now it seems that what appeared to be the emergence of a winner was merely a mirage, a reflection of facing three struggling opponents playing bad football rather than a blossoming team.
The Browns (5-9) finally faced a sound opponent. The same individual and team concerns that plagued them when they stumbled to a 2-8 record came flooding back. And if this was indeed the final game in Cleveland for placekicker Phil Dawson and kick returner Josh Cribbs -- beloved veterans, both -- it's a shame their last memory will be such an artistic stinker.
It's also a shame that the defeat clinched their fifth consecutive losing season and nine of the last 10. But most discouraging was that it marked arguably the worst performance by quarterback Brandon Weeden (21 of 35, 244 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) since his four-interception game in the season opener against Philadelphia. A perfect 69-yard strike to wide-open speedster Travis Benjamin with 10 minutes remaining padded his statistics. His vision downfield must be questioned after he threw two interceptions, the first occuring because he never spotted linebacker Rob Jackson. He also added four more tipped passes to his league-leading total.
Weeden, who was taken No. 22 overall in the 2012 draft, was thoroughly outplayed in a battle of rookies by the untested fourth-rounder Cousins, who rebounded from a slow start. Cousins was pinpoint after a poor pass early was batted by Brown and intercepted by T.J. Ward, leading to a touchdown and 7-0 deficit.
The Redskins then began using misdirection to stymie the Browns pass rush. They gained success on rollouts, bootlegs, play action and the ability of their receivers to separate from struggling Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown or to find an open spot in the zone.
Meanwhile, the Washington secondary belied its reputation by staying with a group of Browns wideouts that had seemingly blossomed in recent weeks, particularly Josh Gordon, who was blanketed throughout, mostly by cornerback Josh Wilson.
Weeden bristled at the suggestion that the three-game winning streak was more the result of poor competition -- or in the case of the win over Pittsburgh, the absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- than his team coming together.
“We're in the NFL,” he said. “We're not playing in a Podunk town and Podunk football. We're in the NFL. There are no bad teams in the NFL. That was still the Pittsburgh Steelers. That was still the Oakland Raiders. That was still the Kansas City Chiefs. If anyone says that, I strongly disagree.”
When the game turned: The Browns lost their lead and their momentum for good when Weeden threw right into Jackson's hands a minute into the second half. It seemed Weeden never saw Jackson hovering over the middle. Jackson returned it to the Cleveland 15 and the Redskins scored from there to take a 17-14 lead that they never relinquished.
Highlight moments: Browns burner Travis Benjamin provided brief hope with 10 minutes remaining when he sprinted past cornerback D.J. Johnson and gathered in a rare perfect pass from Weeden for a 69-yard touchdown that chopped the deficit to 31-21. But the Redskins responded by blowing right through the Browns defense for a response score that clinched it.
- Redskins QB Kirk Cousins -- 26 of 37 for 327 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT
- Redskins RB Alfred Morris -- 27 carries, 87 yards, 2 TDs
- Redskins WR Leonard Hankerson -- 2 catches, 56 yards, 2 TDs
- Browns WR Greg Little -- 5 catches, 74 yards
- Redskins LB Rob Jackson -- 6 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT, 2 PD
What they said about the Benjamin's 69-yard TD reception:
- Browns PR Travis Benjamin -- “I'm pretty sure it was busted coverage. It seemed like he was jogging like it was a run play. Then he started backpedaling and I ran right past him.”
- Browns QB Brandon Weeden -- “We did a great job of picking up the pressure and the safety didn't get there. It was one of the only times we saw busted coverage. They did a great job making plays for the most part.”
What they said about the Weeden interception to Redskins LB London Fletcher:
- Browns QB Weeden -- “I tried to throw it over him and I took an elbow. I couldn't get it over him. They were bringing a lot of pressure.”
What they said about the Weeden interception to Redskins LB Rob Jackson:
- Redskins LB Jackson -- “I dropped to the middle of the field and I saw him dropping back and I read his eyes. He threw the ball right to me.”
What they said about the TD reception by Redskins WR Leonard Hankerson:
- Redskins WR Hankerson -- “It was a little play-action rollout. As I'm running across the field, I see the safety come down. I looked at the quarterback and I see him winding up to throw it, and I knew it was coming to me. He did a great job reading the coverage and getting the ball out.”
What they said about the inability of the Browns defense to handle the play-action and bootleg plays of QB Kirk Cousins:
- Browns CB Joe Haden -- “They were doing a really good job on the play action. Their running game was pretty good and when you get the linebackers sucked up, those quick dig routes are really hard to cover.”
- Browns DE Jabaal Sheard -- “We knew they ran the boot, but not that good. They did a good job of disguising it. They set it up well. It's just something you have to go to film and figure out who has it. I'm not sure if I had it or if it's a reaction thing.”
Numbers you should know: Browns featured back Trent Richardson had just two carries in the second half. He has now rushed for 70 yards on 29 carries in the last two weeks for 2.4 yards per carry. … Browns P Reggie Hodges continues to struggle. Aside from a 58-yard boot into the end zone, he averaged 38.8 yards a punt. .. The Redskins outgained the Browns 271-148 in the second half, and 271-79 if you remove the blown coverage on the TD pass to Benjamin.
Injuries: Browns SS T.J. Ward (knee) left the game late and didn't return. Neither did Browns DE Frostee Rucker (groin).
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Going forward: Redskins -- They could be in a three-way tie for first place in the NFC East after Sunday, and they will wrap up the regular season with NFC East clashes at struggling Philadelphia and at home against Dallas. Winners of five in a row, the Redskins could be riding their momentum into the playoffs with or without quarterback Robert Griffin III. Browns -- The Browns are officially playing out the string again after their thin hopes of a playoff berth were snuffed out by the Redskins. More discouraging is that their schedule toughens considerably with clashes at Denver and Pittsburgh to end the season.
Stay dialed in on the Cleveland Browns on Twitter at @CBSBrowns throughout the season with on-site updates from CBSSports.com RapidReports correspondent Marty Gitlin.