There comes a seminal moment in every season that determines whether it's ultimately judged a success or failure.
For the Redskins, that moment could come Sunday in Pittsburgh. This is unquestionably Mike Shanahan's best team since arriving in DC in 2010 -- but you wouldn't know it by their 3-4 record. (In 2011, the 'Skins were 3-4 after seven games, and 4-3 the year before that; they went on to win five and six games, respectively.)
Realistically, Washington could've beaten the Rams and the Giants and be 5-2 right now.
(We don't even want to think what the RGIII hype would be like in that case -- Tebowmania would be an opening act by comparison.)
But these are the growing pains that accompany a young team still finding its way. Sunday will be a chance for Washington to put it all together, win a tough road game, and make a playoff push over the final two months of the season.
Over the last eight years, Pittsburgh has had one of the NFL's most dominating defenses -- 2012 has been an exception. The run defense has been average at best and opponents have picked on Pittsburgh's No. 1 cornerback Ike Taylor with great success.
Washington probably won't craft a game plan that involves Griffin throwing deep balls all afternoon but they should have little trouble establishing a consistent ground attack that set up the downfield passing game. This means heavy doses of Alfred Morris and the read-option.
Pittsburgh outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison can change the complexion of a game but they can also be neutralized by the threat of RGIII beating them around the edge for untold yards. (We all saw the 76-yard touchdown sprint against the Vikings, and Griffin ran for 89 yards against the Giants.)
But a one-dimensional strategy won't be enough. This means that Washington will have to pass effectively enough to keep Pittsburgh off-balance. It's a reasonable request given that RGIII leads the NFL in completion percentage and Shanahan has a knack for dialing up the right play at the right time. But Griffin's job will be a little tougher this week.
For starters, tight end Fred Davis is done for the season. Chris Cooley rejoins the team but it remains to be seen what he has left in the tank. The other mitigating factor: No. 1 wide receiver Pierre Garcon remains sidelined with a toe injury and that puts a lot of pressure on the remaining cast opposite Santana Moss. Leonard Hankerson, Josh Morgan, Aldrick Robinson -- somebody needs to pick up the slack this week.
Shanahan, meanwhile, is looking forward to the challenge.
"To me, it's a great place to play because the fans are into it," he told CSNWashington.com. "It's just a great atmosphere, I've been there a number of times. It's always a game -- I can't say you look forward to -- you know how good they are consistently and it's tough to beat them there -- but to me it's what football is all about."
If things go according to plan, this could be the game we point to as the turning point in the 2012 season.
Tomorrow we'll look at how the Redskins' defense might try to slow down the Steelers' offense.