Remember last year when the Redskins went to Seattle with an offensive line held together by duct tape and paper clips, only to bring back a victory from Puget Sound?  Well this past weekend the Burgundy and Gold used rubber bands and masking tape to keep the line semi-solid in a 16-3 win by Tampa Bay.  Instead of losing a second straight game to a fellow future wildcard contender, the Skins are two games clear of a muddled NFC East and are off to their best start in ten years (we won’t mention who was coaching the Maroon and Black that autumn).  This has the feel of 2012 and 2015 all over again:  a first-year starting quarterback at Fed Ex Field exceeding expectations amidst a division ripe for the taking.  Enjoy the ascent, because if there’s anything we’ve learned from 2012 and 2015 it’s that 2013 and 2016 are distinct possibilities.

Turnovers Told the Tale- four takeaways helped keep the Buccaneers out of the end zone.  Josh  Norman’s interception at the goal line on the first drive of the day set the tone.  Greg Stroman’s interception led to the team’s final points of the afternoon.  Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s fumble recovery in the end zone ended another Bucs drive into the red zone.  And Ryan Kerrigan’s fumble recovery inside the ten ended Tampa Bays’ last best chance to rally.  And the Skins did not turn the ball over at all.  The team now ranks third in the league at +11 in turnover margin, and they needed every one Sunday to prevail.

Mr. Smith Goes to Consistency- for the third time in four weeks Alex Smith threw for exactly 178 yards.  The Skins won all three of those games…and are 5-0 when he throws for under 250 yards (1-3 when he crosses the 21st century marker for “productive passer”).  If he throws for exactly 178 yards against Houston, we’ll know the fix is in.

Cousins Comparison- Kirk and company had a bye this past week, but I took my bye last week (writing back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back college basketball previews for WTOP.COM) so let’s revisit how the former Franchise Tagged one fared:  18-22 passing for 164 yards and a touchdown with an interception in the Vikings’ 24-9 win over Detroit.  Minnesota is 5-3-1 and in second place of the NFC North, currently owning the second wildcard.  Cousins for the season owns a passer rating of 102.2 (9th best in the league) while Alex Smith is at 90.7 after nine games (21st in the NFL).

Peterson Provides Production- he didn’t gain 100 yards, but the Skins main threat on the ground rushed for 68 yards–including two first down scampers in third and short situations.  His 672 yards through nine games is already more than his numbers from the last two years (and three teams) combined over 13 games played.

Catching On- Maurice Harris led the team with 5 catches for 52 yards, following up his 10 reception effort against Atlanta.  With 26 catches this fall, the third-year pro has already more than doubled his career numbers.  Not bad for a fringe roster player.

Third and Two Halves- the Skins went 0-for-4 on the money down in the first half and 5-for-9 after intermission.  Alex Smith completed 5-of-8 passes while getting sacked once, moving the chains twice.  The running game moved the marker on 3-of-4 plays (Peterson twice and Kapri Bibbs once).  Smith’s top target?  Maurice Harris and Josh Doctson each notched a pair of catches on two targets–each moving the chains once (Doctson’s grab was for a touchdown).  Yardage breakdown:  2-for-2 on short-yardage, 1-for-5 on intermediate (4 to 6 yards needed) and 2-for-6 on long-yardage.  Almost 50% of the third downs needed seven or more yards-less than ideal.

D gets a pass- so they gave up 501 yards…but when it mattered they stopped the Buccaneers shy of the end zone each time.  Mason Foster led the way with 10 tackles while Preston Smith and Matt Ioannidis notched sacks.  Plenty to be happy with, but also plenty to work on moving forward.

Extra Special Teams- Dustin Hopkins nailed his three field goal attempts (unlike his Tampa Bay counterpart Chandler Catanzaro who missed two of three and was cut) with a long of 43 yards.  Tress Way averaged 49.4 yards per punt, but that merely graces the surface.  Four of his five landed inside the Bucs’ 20 with Way’s three second-half kicks landing at the four-, six- and 13-yard line.

Flying Flags- eight infractions for 52 yards gives the team 64 for 624 yards (9th and 4th most in the NFL). Of the five on the offense, two were false starts while the other three were holds (the Skins 21 holds this year are the most in the league).  Morgan Moses had one of each while recent pickup Jonathan Cooper had a pair of holds.  The two defensive penalties (neutral zone infraction and a hold) came in the fourth quarter and were luckily wiped out by Ryan Fitzpatrick’s third turnover of the day.  The special teams’ flag was an illegal formation on a kickoff.  Costliest penalty?  Those two that kept the Bucs’ late drive alive.

Dissecting the Division- the Skins own a two-game lead in the NFC East and due to conference record would be the fourth seed “if the playoffs began today”, which they obviously do not.  Dallas (4-5) owns the head-to-head tiebreaker with Philadelphia thanks to Sunday night’s win and is in 10th place of the conference–the Eagles holding down 11th.  The New York Giants may be in last place of the division but depart the conference basement with their Monday night victory in San Francisco.

NFC East no Longer Least- despite the worst winning percentage (.444) of the league’s eight quartets, the Skins’ division after a 3-1 week at least moves into lock-step with the NFC West (17-21) and AFC East (18-22).  The NFC South (21-15) continues to be the best bunch, even with a 1-3 week that saw Tampa Bay squander 501 yards of offense, Atlanta lose to Cleveland and Carolina get crushed by Pittsburgh.  The Interconference Contest (that means absolutely nothing) is also tied at 22 wins apiece.