MINNEAPOLIS -- When the Washington Redskins return to the site of their Super Bowl XXVI triumph to play the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome today, they'll find out if they have any hopes of recapturing the form that made them super last year.
So far, the Redskins have been following a depressing pattern this year. They lose one on the road and win the next two at home.
That's how they've managed to post a 4-2 record. If they continue the lose one, win two cycle, they'll wind up with a 10-6 record. That's usually a ticket to a wild-card playoff berth at best and a quick exit from the playoffs.
With a pair of struggling teams, the New York Giants and the Seattle Seahawks, coming up in the next two weeks, a victory in this game could be a springboard to a 7-2 mark and a run at the NFC East division title.
If the Redskins lose, though, they would simply continue the pattern the next two weeks of trying to dig themselves out of a hole.
The Redskins also could be vulnerable after their emotional victory over the Philadelphia Eagles last week.
A week ago, the question was whether a battered Washington team was still good enough to play with the best. The Redskins proved they are when they get up to meet a division rival. Now the question is whether they can do it when there isn't that sense of urgency.
"I think for two weeks, we were kind of in a situation where our backs were to the wall and we were fighting our guts out," quarterback Mark Rypien said. "Now we can do one of two things. We can say we bailed ourselves out and congratulate each other, or we can say, 'hey, it's time to move on to get to the next level.' A lot of people across the country and around here are patting us on the back and saying what a great job [we did]. It's easy to fall back and be complacent."
Coach Joe Gibbs is hoping one thing will keep the team from being complacent -- the 30-0 loss to the Vikings in the final preseason game.
It's still easy to take the Vikings lightly despite their 5-1 record. They've yet to beat a team with a winning record and they were getting hammered by the Chicago Bears, 20-0, two weeks ago when Jim Harbaugh called the audible that still has coach Mike Ditka upset. It set the stage for a 21-20 win by Minnesota.
The Vikings, though, do seem to be a feisty bunch. New coach Dennis Green has given them an attitude transplant. They've gone from being a group of underachievers to a group of overachievers.
Green swept Keith Millard, Herschel Walker, Wade Wilson and Joey Browner out the door and has built his offense around quarterback Rich Gannon and running back Terry Allen.
They also seem to have a lot of self-confidence. They're not awed by the Redskins.
Safety Todd Scott has already mentioned the possibility of meeting the Eagles in the NFC title game, and defensive coordinator Tony Dungy thinks his team has an edge in speed. He also thinks they'll be ready for the Redskins offense because former Redskins assistant coach Jack Burns has installed a version of it in Minnesota.
"We feel that our quickness is our edge, so we think we're going to play better on the faster surface than Washington," Dungy said. "We'll have had 10 days to prepare and they will have had seven to prepare. They do a good job of coming off emotional games, but it's still tough. I think we'll have an edge over a lot of teams that play them because we practice against their offense."
Gibbs, of course, insists there'll be no letdown by the Redskins.
"You normally think of the letdown thing when you're playing people you're not afraid of. I think we're afraid of these guys," Gibbs said.
Since these teams haven't met each other in a game that has counted in five years, it's difficult to handicap it.
In the end, though, it'll probably come down to how Rypien plays.
After being picked off three times in back-to-back games by the Detroit Lions and Phoenix Cardinals, he's only been intercepted once the last two weeks. Like the rest of the team, he can't backslide now.
"I think the main thing is that [victory over the Eagles] was a big confidence boost for all of us," Rypien said. "Hopefully, it'll carry on for the rest of the season."