Nobody would have blamed them. Nor could they have.
It would have been perfectly acceptable for the Washington Redskins to throw in the towel, finish out the season and continue grieving throughout the winter months.
When intruders broke into Sean Taylor's home more than a month ago and shot him in the leg, damaging a key femoral artery which eventually led to the safety's death the following morning, Washington, and not just the team, entered a state of mourning destined to derail an already disappointing season.
Instead, though, the Redskins captured those feelings within themselves and their fans, translated them into motivation and honored their fallen Pro Bowler the right way.
Winners of four straight, including impressive victories against Minnesota and Dallas to conclude the regular season, the Redskins' emotionally charged late-season surge has them playing bonus football for the first time in three seasons.
Taylor's unfortunate death, but even more so, his life, seems to be responsible for inspiring this remarkable turnaround.
A fierce competitor destined to become one of the greatest safeties on the planet, Taylor was a competitor from his days at the University of Miami.
He played hard, hit even harder, and despite run-ins with the law that nearly landed him in jail, Taylor was a respected leader on a team that lacked one for years.
It was only appropriate, or perhaps it has more to do with something none of us will ever comprehend, that Washington (9-7) spoiled Dallas' chance for the best finish in franchise history while also clinching a spot in the postseason with a 21-point victory over the Cowboys on Sunday.
The No. 21 will forever hold a different meaning in the nation's capital.
"I was on the sideline and guys were talking about the score, and then it hit me we won by 21," said veteran left tackle Chris Samuels. "I came in the locker room and I yelled it out, and immediately I just kind of broke down in tears. Because I miss Sean, you know."
Five days after their defensive leader passed away, that sadness came through in a last-second home loss to Buffalo, the Redskins fourth setback in a row, dropping them to a disappointing 5-7.
The team attended Taylor's funeral two days later.
They haven't lost since.
"To think four weeks ago, where we were, and where we are (Sunday), it was a great experience and a great ride," coach Joe Gibbs said. "To get in the playoffs was a dream of ours, and four weeks ago, obviously everybody would have said, 'You know, it looks next to impossible."
"Impossible" is no longer a part of the Redskins' vocabulary.
A win over Chicago just three days after the culmination of the tragedy, when career backup Todd Collins led his team to victory after quarterback Jason Campbell went down with a season-ending injury, triumphs over the Giants and Cowboys, both fellow playoff teams, and a win at Minnesota two weeks ago on a national stage when the Vikings could have clinched the NFC's final wild-card berth, has capped a wild, and even more surprising regular season and earned Washington a date at Seattle for the first round of the playoffs on Saturday.
While the Redskins have made headlines nearly all year, the Seahawks (10-6), nestled comfortably in the Pacific Northwest, have quietly gone about their business, claiming their fourth consecutive NFC West crown.
With quarterback Matt Hasselbeck having the best season of his career, running back Shaun Alexander finding holes again after suffering multiple setbacks and perhaps one of the best defenses in the league, led by sackmaster Patrick Kerney (second in the NFL with 14), Seattle is trying to regain the form that had them playing in the Super Bowl just two years ago.
During one late-season stretch, the Seahawks, favored by four against the Redskins, clinched their division with a five-game winning streak.
Nobody outside of Seattle even talked about.
The entire country is now discussing the resurgent Redskins.
Clinton Portis, who played with Taylor at Miami and was one of his closest friends on the team, is one of the primary reasons for that.
Honoring his buddy on every snap, playing with a fury he lacked for most of the season, Portis is averaging close to 130 all-purpose yards a game during Washington's current four game-winning streak. He's also found the end zone five times in that span, including a crucial passing touchdown in the 32-21 win over Minnesota and two rushing scores in the playoff-clinching win over Dallas.
He's not shy, either, about displaying his feelings toward his fallen friend, often lifting his jersey and revealing a shirt with Taylor's likeness on it.
"It was exciting to have Sean on your team," Portis said at Taylor's funeral. "He would always be there no matter what."
The way the Redskins are playing, he might still be.
New York Giants (plus 2) at Tampa Bay
If a loss can spur momentum, the Giants have discovered how to do that.
New York (10-6) put up a fight against undefeated New England on Saturday that would have made former coach and Super Bowl winner Bill Parcells proud.
Eli Manning played one of the greatest games of his short career, staking his team to a 12-point lead in the third quarter. Unfortunately, though, they were playing the unflappable Patriots, who stormed back and captured a thrilling 38-35 win.
Predicted by many (including myself) to rest their starters, the Giants did just the opposite and gave New England a most unexpected fight that now has them primed to win a game, or two, and maybe three, in the playoffs.
"There is nothing but positives," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said after the game. "I told the players in playing this game everything would be positives, there would be no negatives and that is how I feel.
"I don't know any better way to be prepared for the playoffs than to go against a team that was 15-0."
A way to be unprepared for the postseason is benching your starters and losing at home to the Carolina Panthers.
A surprising season by Tampa Bay (9-7) is about to come to a crashing halt.
Not even up-and-coming running back Ernie Graham can save the Buccaneers now.
Tennessee (plus 9) at San Diego
The Chargers have already proven they can play some of their poorest football and still win.
The Titans found that out firsthand.
Trailing 17-3 midway through the fourth quarter of their Week 14 tilt, the Chargers turned it on when it mattered, vaporizing the Titans 14-0 over the final 7:29 of regulation before LaDainian Tomlinson scored again from 16 yards out in overtime, in capturing a thrilling, and foreshadowing, victory.
Now winners of six in a row after opening the season 5-5, San Diego was just getting started.
With an all-pro offense and a top-tier defense, the Chargers probably still have lingering memories of the end of the 2006 season, when they entered the postseason as the top seed, yet fell at home in the second round to New England.
Fortunately for them, a win this time will earn them a date with Indianapolis.
Tennessee quarterback Vince Young, apparently healing quickly after suffering a quadriceps injury that ended his game last week against Indianapolis, needs to use his biggest weapon, his legs, as often as possible, if the Titans are to stand a chance.
"I really feel like I'm a fast healer," Young said.
Tennessee sure hopes he is.
Otherwise, they'll go with veteran Kerry Collins.
Either way, their prize for a victory is the date at New England next week.
Probably not their first choice.
Jacksonville (pick) at Pittsburgh
The way both teams are currently performing, the seeds, as well as the venue for this showdown on Saturday, should be flip-flopped.
Both teams finished the season with a loss, but the fifth-seeded Jaguars, with their starters resting on the bench as their playoff position was locked in place, lost to a respectable team in Houston, which finished 8-8. Fourth-seeded Pittsburgh, on the other hand, was still vying for the third seed in the AFC, with the sole purpose of avoiding Jacksonville in the opening round, when the Steelers lost to Baltimore, helping the Ravens snap a Miami-esque nine game losing streak.
The Jaguars could be the best fifth seed since the NFL reorganized in 2002, creating four divisions with a pair of wild cards in each conference. At 11-5, the Jaguars have the best shot at entering Foxborough and possibly emerging with a victory over New England.
Led by the monster running duo of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, each who have a vastly different, yet equally successful, rushing styles, and a young quarterback in David Garrard, who makes smart decisions and has thrown just three interceptions all season, Jacksonville should have little trouble taking care of an ailing Pittsburgh (10-6) squad a squad the Jaguars defeated just three weeks ago.
The Steelers have lost three of their last four games, not to mention earlier setbacks to nonplayoff teams Arizona, Denver and the Jets.
And they could easily be in the shoes of the Cleveland Browns, who were nudged from the playoffs by the Titans, yet were tied Pittsburgh atop the AFC North at 10-6.
The Steelers claimed the division crown with a head-to-head tiebreaker.
But they're lucky to be in the playoffs.
LAST WEEK: 8-8 (spread); 10-6 (straight up)
SEASON: 135-107-12 (spread); 159-97 (straight up)
Comments and criticisms may be sent to sports reporter Matthew Carroll at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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