As expected, the defending NFC East champion Washington Redskins are contending for the conference title again in 2013. But what wasn't expected was that the Redskins would be 3-5 at midseason, and that such a record would still have them in contention.
After stumbling to an 0-3 start, Washington has won three of its past five games and looked good during home wins against Chicago and San Diego. Quarterback Robert Griffin III's injured knee has been recuperating, and his offense has been inconsistent overall, though the running game has excelled.
The defense has given up 31.6 points per game, the second-highest average in the NFL, but the six it didn't give up to the Chargers late during a Nov. 3 overtime win may have saved the season.
Meanwhile, the Redskins' special teams have not been special.
Here's a look at the parts of the Redskins' sum so far.
Poor performances continue to make games tougher for the offense and the defense.
Eight punts have been returned for touchdowns in the NFL this year -- two of them against the Redskins. (The Giants have allowed three.)
Punter Sav Rocca is averaging 41.5 yards per kick (last in the league), with a net of 34.1 (second to last).
Kai Forbath is averaging 61.5 yards per kickoff, and opponents are averaging 24.3 yards per return. According to ProFootballOutsiders.com, Washington ranks 29th in opponents' average starting field position (30.38-yard line).
Meanwhile, the Redskins rank next to last in the league on kick returns, averaging 19.4 yards per return.
"You want to get more yards," coach Mike Shanahan said this week regarding kick returns. "The team that's leading the NFL is 4 or 5 yards in front of you. This year it's 26 yards. That's what you're working for, those extra 4 or 5 yards. All of a sudden you've just got to break one, and all of a sudden it changes, so hopefully we can do that."
Redskin kickers are 8-of-13 in the field goals, including John Potter's 3-for-4 mark earlier this year, which ranks last in the league in both number of field goals made and percentage.
The Redskins have rushed more than 200 yards during three of the past four games. These haven't been run-out-the-clock yards either; they've come mainly during close games.
Washington is averaging more than 146 yards per game, sixth best in the league, and the team's 5.0 yards-per-carry average is tied for the top spot. Alfred Morris is on pace for less yards than he had during his rookie season (1,613), but he's getting nearly five fewer carries per game and averaging 5.2 yards per carry this year, as opposed to 4.8 a year ago.
Roy Helu has provided a change of pace to Morris, adding 163 yards and four touchdowns, while Griffin has run less than he did a year ago. In fact, he has scored no rushing touchdowns in 2013, and had one during the final nine games of the 2012 season.
Griffin has struggled with throwing accuracy, completing 181 of 300 passes (60.3 percent) for 2,169 yards. He has nine touchdown passes, nine interceptions and a passer rating of 80.
Eight games into his rookie season, Griffin had completed 149 of 223 passes (66.8 percent) for 1,778 yards, with eight touchdowns and three picks.
He'll be looking to build on his performance Nov. 3 -- when he completed 23 of 32 (71.9 percent) for 291 yards -- when Washington plays Minnesota Nov. 7. The Redskins have yet to win back-to-back games in 2013.
A big part of the Nov. 3 win against San Diego was the Redskins' success on third down -- as they converted 12 of 17. But the Redskins have been good all year on third down -- their 44.5 percent success rate is fourth best in the league.
The unit has also benefited of late from creative play calling by Kyle Shanahan, including some triple option plays and three-tight end formations.
"I think it can be a little confusing for a defense, you know, with their responsibilities," Griffin said this week. "It's not traditional, so when you get away from some of the traditional things, it can mess up the guys' keys, and you might have a guy or a play that works and you get a big gash and that's all you need."
Pierre Garcon's 54 catches are fourth best in the league, but other Washington receivers have been inconsistent. After back-to-back games with one reception, Leonard Hankerson had five catches for 55 yards Nov. 3.
Rookie tight end Jordan Reed has shown receiver-like skills and supplanted Fred Davis in becoming the second-most targeted player on the team (49 targets). Reed has 38 receptions for 425 yards, both of which rank second on the team.
Washington intercepted Philip Rivers twice and stretched a bend-but-don't-break philosophy to the limit with its goal-line stand Nov. 3 against the Chargers. It gave the Redskins a great end to a potentially devastating fourth quarter.
"Defense stepped up big, they created turnovers, we scored touchdowns," Griffin said after the win. "At the end of the game, when we couldn't quite execute that four-minute offense all the way to win the game, they stepped up big for us and had a goal-line stand."
Still, the Redskins' defense is ranked 30th overall in the NFL, giving up nearly 400 yards per game. The team is 28th in passing defense at 282.1 yards allowed per game, and 22nd in run defense, allowing 116.6 yards per game. The teams' 21 sacks are good for 20th in the league.
Washington's defense has made some big plays, returning four interceptions and a fumble for touchdowns.
Also, the Redskins have been good on third down, allowing a 35.4 percent conversion rate, good for eighth best in the league.
Cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who will be a free agent at the end of season, has been stellar. His three interceptions are tied for second in the league, and he leads defensive players with three touchdowns (two interceptions and a fumble return). The 10-year veteran also has nine pass defenses.
Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan is tied for 11th with 6.5 sacks, and has forced three fumbles. Fourth-year linebacker Perry Riley leads the team with 46 tackles, including two sacks.
Brian Orakpo has three sacks, two of which came against Matt Flynn.
The Nov. 3 overtime win featured one of Griffin's best performances of the season, and could serve as a springboard to a second half filled with sunshine, puppies and … whoa, take a deep breath.
It could be easy to look at the 45-21 loss at Denver Oct. 27 as the low point. Washington played poorly during the second half, but at the end of the day, it lost a game it was supposed to lose. Losing at home to a division rival when you're favored is worse. The Redskins took an early lead Sept. 9 against Philadelphia, but committed three turnovers en route to a 33-27 division loss.
The Road Ahead
The Eagles and Giants might have gotten an early Christmas present Nov. 4, when Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers got injured during a loss to the Bears. As Green Bay's next two opponents, Philadelphia and Washington will face a team that will likely be without Rodgers and looked horrible on defense against Chicago.
Elsewhere in the NFC East, Dallas (5-4) will play three divisional games; travel to New Orleans and Chicago; and host Green Bay in December, by which time the Packers should be healthy. Philadelphia will face the Lions, Bears and Cardinals at home, and travel to Dallas and Minnesota.
After playing Minnesota Nov. 7, Washington will travel to Philadelphia before hosting the 49ers, Giants and Chiefs.