ASHBURN, Va. -- The palpable anxiety that had been building at Redskins Park for a month suddenly dissipated Monday. Instead of making brooding comments about feeling like the worst coach in America, coach Jim Zorn was back to telling stories about bizarre things he's done.
It didn't matter that the offense maintained its one-touchdown-per-game pace, or that the victory wasn't decided until the final play, or that the playoffs are now a mathematically impossibility.
The Washington Redskins, who hadn't beaten a team with a winning record since the first week in October, got an immeasurable psychological boost with Sunday's 10-3 triumph over the Philadelphia Eagles.
"Everybody can take a breath," Zorn said. "I think we're all breathing in. Not too many people these last few games have been breathing out, so this is just an opportunity to breathe out."
The rookie coach needed some sort of late-season accomplishment to reinforce his case that he's worthy of returning next season, and now he has it. The Redskins (8-7) can clinch a winning season by beating San Francisco in next week's season finale, and they'll finish .500 at worst.
In fact, a 9-7 record would keep the Redskins from finishing last in the NFC East and match last year's mark under coach Joe Gibbs, although it wouldn't erase the what-could-have-been feeling left over from this year's 6-2 start.
"It's still not satisfying from the standpoint of the overall picture of having that spell where we lost so many," Zorn said. "My spirits were lifted because our players didn't give up on the season. They didn't give up by just playing a couple more games halfheartedly and then getting to the offseason."
For the second straight Monday, the players were given the day off -- but this time it was a reward for a win and not because Zorn needed some extra time to examine his coaching style. The coach himself was back at his upbeat, quirky best when asked about the most unusual motivational ploy he's tried this season.
It seems that after practice one day, Zorn started talking about all the negative things that could happen in an upcoming game. As he did so, he stiffened his body more and more -- to the point that he tipped over.
"As I was in the fetal position, plopped over sideways, I was explaining how this is how it could be this Sunday if we play all tight," Zorn said.
On the ground, Zorn then starting talking about what would happen if the team didn't do those negative things. As he did so, he loosened up and stood.
"I think while I was on the ground, in the fetal position, our players were thinking, 'OK, he's lost it,"' Zorn said.
If the players do feel that way, they didn't show it Sunday in a game that was all about pride.
The defense, in particular, made a game-winning stand, complicating the tough decisions the Redskins will have to make on that side of the ball in the offseason.
On one hand, there's a case to be made for lots of changes. The defense has just 17 takeaways (only NFL one team has fewer), a mere 23 sacks (only three teams have fewer), no touchdowns, and there are too many aging players (Shawn Springs, Marcus Washington, Cornelius Griffin) who always seem to be hurt.
On the other hand, the unit is ranked fourth in the NFL in both scoring defense and yards allowed. No team has scored more than 24 points on the Redskins this season.
"I think we'll definitely be a force to be reckoned with," said Washington, who returned Sunday after missing four games with a severely sprained ankle. "We've got a lot of talent over there, and I think we really showed that we could play good and play together, being that we had everybody healthy."
Notes: DT Lorenzo Alexander is doubtful for the final game after pulling his hamstring while chasing Eagles RB Brian Westbrook on a pass play. ... P Ryan Plackemeier, who had been "kicking horribly," according to Zorn, had by far his best game of the season. His punts pinned Philadelphia at the 4, 9, 3, 10 and 9 yard lines. "He was one of the key factors in our win," Zorn said.