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Strength of Schedule a Matter of Right Team, Right Time

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Lies, damned lies and statistics. They might be one and the same.

Every football aficionado finds certain stats to be worthless or without meaning. There are those who see no value in time of possession. Others who say the total defensive rankings mean nothing because they measure only yards allowed and not takeaways and touchdowns or red-zone efficiency.

Then there's strength of schedule. It's always a biggie and it's all based on what teams accomplished in the previous season. Ultimately, it counts for nothing. The schedule can look like a beast when it's published but it is quickly overtaken by events on the ground (and in the air).

The Redskins went into 2010 facing the eighth toughest slate in the league. Sure looked that way. But what we are all finding out, as we usually do, is that it is more about when the game is played than against whom.

Look at those battered New York Giants, so strapped at receiver they signed Devin Thomas after his release by the Carolina Panthers. When the Giants were 6-2 and earning accolades as perhaps the NFC's best team, they looked scary. Then the injuries hit, they lost two games in a row and seemed mortal. After their comeback victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars, they're re-energized and waiting for the Redskins, who must shake off a disappointing home loss that followed an exhilarating overtime road victory.

Consider the first two games of the season. The Dallas Cowboys seemed formidable as defending NFC East champions and winners of a playoff game. The Redskins defeated them, earned a quality win but look what happened to the Cowboys after that. Does it seem like a quality win now?

Second week. The Houston Texans. Widely expected to make the trip for the first time ever to the playoffs. Fresh off a beating of the Indianapolis Colts, the Super Bowl runner-up. The Redskins lost narrowly and it could have been deemed a quality loss. Now look again at the Texans. They're a 5-6 team that just snapped a four-game losing skid.

In a different world, the Redskins would have perhaps played the Minnesota Vikings a week before they fired an unpopular head coach instead of the week after. The Vikings trimmed back their playbook, stuck to basics and didn't perform like the 3-7 team drubbed 31-3 at home by the Green Bay Packers (whom the Redskins defeated). They walked out of FedExField with a 17-13 win, their first on the road all season.

We've seen that interim coach effect before. The Cowboys got torched 45-7 in Green Bay, fired Wade Phillips, and then went on the road to beat the Giants 33-20 to give Jason Garrett a win in his debut.

It would have been dandy to play the Jacksonville Jaguars early. The Jags sat at 3-4 after bad losses to the Tennessee Titans (who then were playing well but now have lost four straight) and Kansas City Chiefs. Now the Jags hold a piece of first place in the AFC South despite their come-from-ahead loss to the Giants. The Redskins play the Jags Dec. 26.

Take on the San Diego Chargers in October and you face a team on a three-game losing streak. Play them now and get out the flame retardant suit. They torched the Colts Sunday night for their fourth consecutive win. Look at their schedule. They finish with the San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos. The 49ers were supposed to win the NFC West but they can barely win a game. The Bengals, AFC North champs a year ago, have lost eight in a row. Denver is a dysfunctional mess. The Chargers should win their fifth consecutive AFC West title and host a first-round playoff game.

Sometimes it's not who you play but where you play them. The Redskins lost to the Rams in St. Louis and the rebuilding Rams show great promise ... at home. They're 4-2 at the Edward Jones Dome, 1-4 in other buildings. Of the NFC West teams, the Seattle Seahawks entered the season tied for 29th most difficult schedule. The Rams were 31st, the Arizona Cardinals last. None are over .500.

Injuries weaken teams, usually through the cluster effect. The Giants saw their leading receiver, Steve Smith, go down, quickly followed by Ramses Barden and the dangerous Hakeem Nicks. Their offensive line, which started countless games together over the years, lost center Shaun O'Hara, tackle David Diehl and his backup, Shawn Andrews. They've been shuffling people in and out, looking for answers.

Is it better to play them now than a month ago, when they won five games in a row by a combined 161-75, including road blowouts of the Texans and Seahawks? Well, yeah.

Hot teams cool off. Injuries shake up rosters. Often, teams enter the season full of confidence only to discover just how deficient they are.

Ron Wolf, the long-time NFL executive who assembled the Packers' championship team of 1996, put it best.

"You never want to play bad teams early," he said. "They don't know they're bad yet."


Larry Weisman, an award-winning journalist during 25 years with USA TODAY, writes for Redskins.com and appears nightly on Redskins Nation on Comcast SportsNet. Read his Redskinsblitz blog at Redskinsrule.com and follow him on Twitter.com/LarryWeisman.

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