Tip O'Neill, the Speaker of the House in the 1970s and '80s, famously said that all politics is local.
In a way, so is football. You want to make the playoffs? The surest way in is to win your division and that means handling your rivals, the teams you see twice a season. The locals.
The Redskins haven't won the NFC East since 1999. In the ensuing years, the Philadelphia Eagles captured five division titles, the New York Giants three and the Dallas Cowboys two. The Eagles went to a Super Bowl and lost, the Giants went to a Super Bowl and won and the Cowboys are one of the favorites this season.
Over the past four years, the Redskins own a mark of 7-17 in division games. In 2007, the last playoff season, the Redskins were 3-3 against the NFC East but two of those victories came in the dramatic four-game win streak that salvaged the season and earned a wild card.
The last time the Redskins had a winning record in division games was 2005, when they were 5-1 and (not coincidentally) a playoff team.
Whether the NFC East remains the NFL's most treacherous division can be a question for another day. We know that it produces playoff teams effectively. Two last January, two in 2008, two in 2007, three in 2006, two in 2005.
The NFC East has not been represented solely by its champion since 2004. No other division sends multiple contestants on to the dance like this one. The NFC West hasn't sent as many as two since '04.
Winning the division puts a team in line for at least a bit of home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. It's the first step in a well-known formula – clinch your division, earn a first-round bye, aim for overall home-field edge.
Your Redskins haven't played a home playoff game since that '99 campaign. Even in 2005, when they went 10-6, they were a wild card and had to go on the road in the playoffs, triumphing at Tampa Bay and then losing in Seattle.
To win the division, the Redskins must beat the teams in it. Easy to say, not so easy to do. The Redskins have lost three in a row to the Cowboys, scoring 16 whole points in that bitter little string. Got swept last year by the Eagles. Lost four in a row to the Giants by a combined 107-43.
We know the Redskins bolstered their weak areas in the offseason, made numerous changes and will not be the sloppy 4-12 squad of 2009. We've seen Donovan McNabb take charge at quarterback and significant upgrades along the offensive line and in terms of the defensive mindset.
But what about their rivals, the teams that stand between the Redskins and the playoffs, between the Redskins and a first-place finish in the NFC East?
Let's take a little look.
The Dallas Cowboys appear to be the most complete of this quartet. Like Tony Romo or not, he gets the job done. The Cowboys can pressure the passer with DeMarcus Ware, one of the game's outstanding edge rushers.
Are they perfect? Nooooooo. They've got a big question at left tackle, even after trading for Alex Barron. Their safeties may be barely adequate. Mileage weighs on running back Marion Barber. Still, the Cowboys seem the general favorite to repeat in the NFC East.
The subject matter gets dicey as we move to the Eagles and Giants.
The Eagles sent their long-time quarterback to the Redskins and now go forward with Kevin Kolb, starter of five career games. They cut ties with running back Brian Westbrook. They're now two seasons removed from the genius of their late defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.
They made so many deals in the draft they wound up with 13 players, which says they're getting younger and retooling on the fly. The remade front office sends mixed signals and head coach Andy Reid seems to have surrendered some authority.
So which way does the arrow point for the Eagles? Are they an 11-5 team again? Don't think so. This looks like a season where they take a step back unless Kolb truly emerges in the same way Aaron Rodgers did in Green Bay.
The Giants started 5-0 last year and finished 8-8 and gave up 427 points. They still lack the type of middle linebacker Antonio Pierce was when in his prime, they've got some uncertainty at safety and they're working with their third defensive coordinator in three years.
That underrated offensive line now begins to creak and Brandon Jacobs did not push the pile last year. Elevator going up or going down? It says here the Giants can be taken, that 8-8 was more indicator than accident.
Other teams getting worse won't necessarily make the Redskins better. But if the Redskins truly improved themselves, maybe even at the expense of a rival (the Eagles), then the hunt for that second playoff spot that almost always falls to the NFC East could be in play.
No gifts, no gimmes. Everything in this division is earned. There's no expressway to the Super Bowl. This train must make all local stops.