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Landover’s finest professional football squad kicked the living hell out of the New Orleans Saints last weekend, and even I can’t bleed the joy out of this one. Much.

It was the most potent output this team has managed in years, regardless of what metric you use. It’s been a decade since they scored more points, two and a half decades since they racked up more yards.

The quarterback—who, at least for the moment, is actually not beleaguered—put up a team-record stat line: 324 yards and four touchdowns and no interceptions for a perfect QB rating of 158.3. In fact, since I bluntly declared him “awful,” Kirk Cousins has completed 75 of 105 passes for 858 yards, eight touchdowns, and just one interception. And even that single interception deflected cleanly off the intended receiver’s hands.

The defense started slowly, giving up a couple touchdown drives and looking inept in the process, but once they settled in during the second quarter, it was an all-but-flawless game to watch. For one crisp fall Sunday, there was virtually nothing for fans to complain about.

But because there is no silver lining so bright that I can’t find the dark cloud inside, what it really brought home to me is just how bad this team has become in recent years.

I’ve had conversations over the years with people who came to the team from other NFL markets—as players, staff, or media—who were taken aback to find out just how highly the Washington franchise regards itself. The glory days were three decades gone, faded to all but the most dedicated fans. To newcomers, this was at best a mediocre team whose glory days were past, and at worst this was one of the dregs of the NFL, a perennial sad sack alongside the Raiders and Browns and Jaguars.

But even though I’d heard that, and even though I regularly write about how D.C. sports is proof that the universe can kill any joy, I hadn’t realized just how fully I’d internalized the doomed-and-awful narrative.

Because even as they went into the half leading 27–14, I assumed that the best they could hope for was to hold on and eke out a win. I assumed that Cousins would throw catastrophically stupid interceptions, and/or that the defense would remember that they don’t like tackling.

I didn’t think these things in a malicious way, or even a self-pitying one. This is just what I assumed would happen, because this football team simply doesn’t win blowouts.

It’s too soon to say that this one win heralds a legitimate culture change, just like it’s too soon to declare that Cousins’ streak of three good games is anything more than a dead cat bounce in a career that winds up Rex Grossman–esque.

But one thing happened during and in the wake of the game against New Orleans that does give me a little glimmer of genuine hope. The last time Washington and New Orleans faced off was Robert Griffin III’s first game at QB, and Washington hung 40 on them and won. It was the start of that fascinating, electrifying, and devastating playoff season. And I didn’t see any articles on it, nor did I see it mentioned on the TV broadcast. Even postgame, I haven’t seen the comparison between Cousins’ numbers and Griffin’s. (And they’re pretty comparable.)

Impossible as it seemed in preseason, the team seems to have put the Robert Griffin III saga behind it. The questions surrounding Cousins now have to do with contracts, not competition. Griffin is inactive every game and the cameras seem to have stopped looking for him.

So for the second time in three years, a win over the Saints appears to herald a culture change. If GM Scot McCloughan and the team’s coaches have genuinely navigated out of the Robert Griffin circus, then maybe they are capable of altering the team’s wider narrative.

But I’m going to need more than one win, no matter how emphatic, to break the deeply ingrained belief that it’s all going to somehow go wrong. 

Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @Matt_Terl.

Photo by Keith Allison