PHILADELPHIA -- The dancing started on the sideline, a joyful celebration guided not by music but by emotions. It spilled into the locker room, where a group of players, notably Jason Hatcher and Chris Baker, danced to the beat of the music and their hearts.
For a change, the Washington Redskins felt good in late December. That is well-deserved; the Redskins are the NFC East champions, and if anyone wants to let them know how bad the division is, well, the Redskins really don't care. The rules of the NFL stipulate that all you must do is be better than the other teams in your division, and after Saturday's 38-24 win over Philadelphia, the Redskins are.
Washington has been bad when the division was mediocre and when it was good, so do not expect the Redskins to apologize for being the best of a mediocre bunch. They were picked by many to win fewer than six games, and some predicted they'd be the worst team in the NFL.
Instead, Saturday night they donned gray NFC East champion hats and black T-shirts reading "NFC East is on lock." It was a celebration of a change of culture, overcoming key injuries, surviving a quarterback change, showing resilience time and time again this season and, yes, winning the division. But this was as much about the journey as it was about the destination.
"You have those moments when you're 4-12 and 3-13 where you wonder, 'Are you going to go back to the playoffs?'" Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. "You gain a greater appreciation for going back, and you learn to appreciate these moments more, appreciate coming into the locker room and getting hats and shirts. You've got to appreciate these moments."
That's especially true in Washington, where the postseason doesn't happen all that often. Usually, if the Redskins aren't in the playoffs, they're really bad. Since Joe Gibbs returned in 2004, the Redskins have made the postseason four times; they've finished last seven times.
Washington's journey this season included a quarterback change that seemed controversial to the fan base but wasn't to the players in the locker room. They were rewarded with stellar play by Kirk Cousins down the stretch and watched him throw 20 touchdowns with just three interceptions in the last nine games. Some might never forgive Jay Gruden for benching Robert Griffin III, but inside the locker room, that change was among the early reasons for optimism.
The Redskins overcame injuries to players they felt would play key roles. They overcame a five-game road losing streak to win two straight away from home when they needed wins most.
Maybe in other seasons, if the NFL didn't have the imbalance of this season, the Redskins would be an afterthought. They didn't beat a team with a winning record, after all. But that's not their focus -- not even for a minute. Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan wanted to change the culture and establish a new foundation. That a division title accompanied that change is gravy.
"This locker room believed, this organization believed, our leader believed, Jay Gruden," nose tackle Terrance Knighton said. "This is what I came here for: to be part of a culture change. We expect to win in this locker room. So many ups and downs all year. This is the best feeling I've had in any locker room I've been in. ... We work so hard, and we overcame so much."
The Redskins survived more issues Saturday and received more good fortune. The Eagles drove down and took a 7-0 lead; the Redskins then scored and missed an extra point. They should have been burned for a few long touchdown passes, but one was an overthrow, and the other was a drop. The Redskins committed a big gaffe at the end of the first half, with Kirk Cousins kneeling instead of throwing a fade and the clock running out.
Yet as they had done all season, the Redskins didn't flinch. It was something the players saw throughout the season -- even in the loss to the New York Giants, when they felt they competed well in the second half. During the season, they brought in free agents who contributed. They coaxed positive performances out of five draft picks and one undrafted receiver-turned-corner.
There was a different atmosphere in training camp, and it was noticeable -- if you wanted to notice it, that is. The veteran leadership was strong, but would it be enough? There are definitely those in the organization who are surprised the team won eight games and consider this the start of something -- not the finish.
"You're happy as heck for them, and to get rewarded like this is something special we'll never forget," Gruden said. "[In camp], we felt we were an up-and-coming team, like we could compete with anybody. It was just a matter of putting it all together, handling the ups and downs."
The Redskins have known the downs. Go ahead and mock the NFC East; it's not the best. But after all the downs, the Redskins are going to enjoy the ups.
"We didn't just earn it," said Kedric Golston, in his 10th season. "We took it. ... It's a special moment."