Posted: Mon December 31, 2012 3:22AM; Updated: Sun January 6, 2013 1:20AM

Morris, Redskins beat odds, secure NFC East, playoff berth

By Matt Gagne, SI.com

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Alfred Morris
Alfred Morris helped the Redskins power past the Cowboys and into the playoffs.
John Middlebrook/Cal Sport Media
Final

LANDOVER, Md. -- The last piece of the postseason puzzle fell into place late Sunday night in the frigid cold at FedEx Field. With 1:15 left to play in the 256th and final game of the NFL's regular season, Redskins running back Alfred Morris scored his third touchdown on a 1-yard plunge, capping an eye-popping performance in which he ran for a career-high 200 yards on 33 carries and, in the words of teammate Chris Cooley, "became a star tonight."

A sixth-round pick out of Florida Atlantic, Morris powered the Redskins to a 28-18 victory over the Cowboys, capturing their first NFC East division title since 1999. In the postgame locker room, head coach Mike Shanahan physically separated Morris from his 52 teammates to single out his importance, calling him a Pro Bowl-caliber player and awarding him the game ball.

"I am just thankful that we are in the playoffs," Morris said. "All odds were against us."

On Nov. 4, Washington fell to 3-6 following a 21-13 loss to the Panthers, who took just one win and a five-game losing streak into that Week 9 contest at FedEx Field. Afterward, Shanahan seemed resigned to yet another losing season.

"When you lose a game like that, you're playing to see who is going to be on your football team for years to come," he said then. "We're not out of it statistically, but now we find out what type of character we got and how guys keep on fighting through the rest of the season."

No one anticipated the way his team would respond. After their bye week, the Redskins put together their first seven-game winning streak since 1996, which they capped by beating rival Dallas twice in the same season for the first time since 2005.

By kickoff, the stakes were clear: the winner would continue on to the postseason; the loser was done for the year. Cooley, a tight end who has spent all nine of his mostly losing seasons with Washington, said. "That's as sweet as it gets to beat them. There's no better scenario."

Earning a playoff berth for the first time in five seasons, the Redskins (10-6) will host the Seahawks (11-5) at 4:30 p.m. ET on Jan. 6. Their 10 wins, a threshold last reached in 2005, is a remarkable turnaround from last season's 5-11 record and last-place finish.

Cooley credited rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III with "changing the aura of this team" and said, "I have been a part of the culture here where we didn't expect to win every week. This year is the first time I've ever felt that was possible."

Griffin, a Heisman Trophy winner and the second overall pick in last April's draft, earned a Pro Bowl nod this season. He completed nine of 18 passes for 100 yards, finishing the year with 3,200 yards passing, 20 touchdowns and a 102.4 passer rating. He also ran for 63 yards on six carries and scored a touchdown against the Cowboys, bringing his rushing totals to 815 yards and seven TDs.

"He's not a rookie anymore," Cooley said. "He's our leader."

But what would RGIII be without Morris?

A literal sidekick in the backfield, Morris often lines up next to the quarterback and helps keep defenses off-balance in the Redskins' option attack, which became a constant go-to on Sunday as a 28-degree wind chill made the passing game difficult to execute.

A hard-charging runner who rarely makes open-field cuts, Morris broke off a 32-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to give Washington a 21-10 lead, and his 17-yard scamper in the second quarter capped an eight-play, 68-yard drive to answer the Cowboys' opening score. When defenders were able to latch on, Morris often dragged them on his back for a few extra yards before being wrestled to the ground.

"Runs that are blocked for three yards, he turns them into seven-yard gains," Griffin III said. "If they're not stopping it, why go away from the plan?"

An alternate for this season's Pro Bowl, Morris just might be the all-star game's biggest snub. On his way to breaking Clinton Portis' franchise rushing record by 87 yards, Morris finished the season with 1,603 yards (second only to the Vikings' Adrian Peterson) and 13 rushing touchdowns (second only to the Texans' Arian Foster.)

"He's got Pro Bowls in his future," right tackle Tyler Polumbus said. "He might sneak into this year's one way or another."

Dallas almost snuck back into Sunday's game. With 5:55 left to play, Tony Romo (20-for-37, 218 yards, two touchdowns) connected with Kevin Ogletree on a 10-yard fade route in the left corner of the end zone, and Dwayne Harris caught the ensuing two-point conversion to make it 21-18. But on the Cowboys' next possession, Romo threw his third interception to end all hope.

Backpedaling to avoid pressure up the gut, he lofted a ball toward DeMarco Murray in the left flat. Linebacker Rob Jackson came down with the pick, but admitted, "He threw the ball to me. It wasn't anything I did."

As Shanahan pointed out in the postgame locker room, the Redskins' success had everything to do with Morris, who didn't get a chance to see the field until a rash of preseason injuries made him the default starter in Week 1.

"The draft is like picking behind a prize door. You don't know what you're going to get," Redskins Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams said. "Luckily he fell into our laps. I had no clue who he was in training camp. No one did except for Coach Shanahan, and he found a gem. His contributions to this team are unmatched."

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