There wasn't much memorable about last year's meeting between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Redskins.
Sure, the Redskins scored 16 points in the third quarter to pull out a 16-13 victory but that ultimately meant little to the fates of either team. That win evened the Redskins' record at 2-2 but the final 12 games offered little in the way of hope.
The Redskins finished 4-12, the Bucs 3-13. But the Bucs, late in that dismal season, made the change that has helped propel them into the playoff picture now. They meet again Sunday at FedExField, both very much changed from a year ago.
Josh Freeman didn't play against the Redskins. The Bucs wanted to wait and watch and pick their spot before inserting this No. 1 pick in the lineup. Nine weeks in, they made the move and that's when they began to gain some traction.
Freeman lost his first start, extending the Bucs' dismal record to 0-7. Then came the first victory, and two in the final three weeks.
Now it is Freeman's steadiness and maturation powering the Bucs.
"He's been a clutch performer for us. He's the main reason why we're sitting where we're sitting right now, with a chance to play meaningful games in December," second-year coach Raheem Morris said by phone from Tampa.
Freeman has thrown 16 touchdown passes and six interceptions and acknowledged that "ball security" was part of the Bucs' philosophy. He's also reaping the benefits of his off-season work.
"He came in, he did everything he needed to do as far as grasp the whole offense, bring the guys in to throw with so they could all be in sync, bring in the guys for the run game so he can have all his points right. He was here like a coach. He prepares like a coach. And he came to work like one and it's definitely showing up right now," Morris said.
Morris' first year had its hiccups but the program has found its balance.
"Last year we fired the defensive coordinator and the offensive coordinator and we didn't get it together until the end of the year," Freeman said. "Starting this year, having it all together, made us really feel like we have the opportunity to play with anybody and beat anybody."
The Bucs (7-5) compete with everybody but they haven't beaten a team with a winning record. They've lost their last two games, as have the Redskins (5-7).
Freeman said he looks forward to seeing two players on Sunday – one he knows well and one he has long admired. Redskins return artist and receiver Brandon Banks was a teammate for a season at Kansas State and quarterback Donovan McNabb has long been special to Freeman.
Banks, Freeman said, "is explosive. There was no doubt in my mind that if he got a shot in the NFL, he'd make it on the team and be a big asset. He was a 1,000-yard receiver for me."
Freeman, Banks said, "is the reason I went to K-State. I wanted to play with a great quarterback."
"I've been a huge Donovan McNabb fan ever since I was a kid and really started watching quarterbacks," said Freeman, 22, who was in grade school when McNabb entered the NFL in 1999. "He's a great player, exciting to watch. The older I've gotten and the more football I've played, I've really started to appreciate his game and everything he brings to the table as a quarterback. A lot of my game, I try to model after him."
QUOTABLE:"Obviously we got outcoached, outplayed, got our butts kicked. I don't know what else you can say about it." – New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, after Monday night's 45-3 loss to the New England Patriots. ... "We weren't surprised with the outcome." – Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork. ... "They're all beautiful. They're all special in their own way." – Cleveland Browns coach Eric Mangini, after a somewhat homely 13-10 victory over the Miami Dolphins. ... "We're certainly not afraid to go out on the road and try to quiet someone else's crowd. We are certainly not afraid of that challenge." – New York Giants guard Chris Snee. The Giants play three of their last four games away. ... "There could possibly be a 10-6 team, maybe an 11-5 team, not make the playoffs this year. We don't want to be that team on the outside looking in." – Chicago Bears safety Chris Harris, whose team leads the NFC North by one game over the Green Bay Packers. The teams meet in the season finale. The Bears play at home Sunday against the streaking Patriots.
AROUND THE NFL:By virtue of their six takeaways against the Redskins, the Giants now lead the NFL in that category with 30. Their early sloppiness with the football, however, still leaves them with a league-leading 31 turnovers. ... The Redskins rank last in the NFL in defending plays on first down, allowing 6.78 yards per such play. The league average is 5.5; the Pittsburgh Steelers are No. 1 in this category (4.32). ... Patriots quarterback Tom Brady now tops the NFL in passer rating at 109.5, just ahead of the Philadelphia Eagles' Michael Vick. Brady has thrown 27 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. ... The Arizona Cardinals have lost seven consecutive games and scored 25 points in the last three. They play the Denver Broncos Sunday. The Broncos fired coach Josh McDaniels on Monday and that's bad news for the Cards. Two other teams (the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings) gave their coaches the big haircut this season and promptly won for their interim replacements. The Cowboys are 3-1 under Jason Garrett, the Vikings 2-0 for Leslie Frazier. ... A lot of the early talk about the problems of the New Orleans Saints faded away with their five-game winning streak. They've scored 30 or more points in each of the last four. "A lot of it is just weathering the storm sometimes and you've just got to. We knew it was going to be tough coming into the season, just from the expectations and everybody gunning for you and being Super Bowl champs and everything," quarterback Drew Brees said. "For us it was just a matter of kind of going through those tough times." ... St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson needs 15 rushing yards to notch his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard season. He missed out only as a rookie (673) when he split time with Marshall Faulk. ... Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has gone five consecutive starts without throwing an interception, the first time for a Packers passer since Bart Starr in 1966.
Larry Weisman, an award-winning journalist during 25 years with USA TODAY, writes for Redskins.com and appears nightly on Redskins Nation on Comcast SportsNet. Read his Redskinsblitz blog at Redskinsrule.com and follow him on Twitter.com/LarryWeisman.