If Washington coach Mike Shanahan says the Redskins "must win" over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, desperation is encircling the team.

Not that Shanahan is wrong. Either Washington (3-5) beats Carolina (1-6) or the team's fifth straight 2-6 second-half finish seems more likely.

But Shanahan and most coaches are never so candid without reason. They usually just mumble something about how every game is important or taking it one week at a time. To declare at midseason a game is a "must win" shows Shanahan is more worried than conceding.

The Redskins should beat the Panthers. Even Las Vegas oddsmakers favor Washington by three points.

But Washington has seen this trap game before. In 2009, the Redskins (2-2) were supposed to beat the Panthers (0-3) easily. Instead, Washington lost 20-17 while Pro Bowl offensive tackle Chris Samuels suffered a career-ending injury.

Washington has lost countless games to bad teams, rookie quarterbacks and poor luck since its last title 21 years ago. This year isn't looking much different with losses to St. Louis, Cincinnati, Atlanta and the New York Giants -- all potential victories. Only Pittsburgh dominated Washington.

After two straight losses that turned an optimistic 3-3 to another probable losing season, the Redskins look a little ragged. They played sloppy against Pittsburgh, making their best asset in Robert Griffin III look mortal while the defense simply collapsed.

Carolina is a watershed moment that will show which way the remainder of the season goes. If Washington wins, the Redskins have a chance at six or seven wins. Maybe a prayer for 8-8. That doesn't reach the playoffs, but at least it's reason to expect to be a contender in 2013.

If Washington loses, that's three straight defeats entering the bye week. That streak would fester for two weeks before returning to play NFC East rivals Philadelphia, at Dallas on Thanksgiving and New York on Monday Night Football. December will be focused on Griffin's development instead of postseason thoughts.

Carolina truly is a must-win game, followed by a handful more. That Shanahan was so candid raises its relevance.

The Panthers are no easy opponent. Carolina has lost a series of close games, including 23-22 to Chicago last weekend. The Panthers have been outclassed once by the Giants.

Quarterback Cam Newton was last year's Griffin and aside a media meltdown hasn't been awful this season. He just isn't nearly as good as last year, which raises suspicions NFL defensive coordinators have figured him out. And the next scary step is if they quickly neutralized Newton will Griffin be next in 2013?

Carolina and Washington aren't greatly different. This wouldn't be a season's signature win for Washington, but losing would start the offseason countdown.

A must win -- that's an understatement.

Examiner columnist Rick Snider has covered local sports since 1978. Read more on Twitter @Snide_Remarks or email rsnider@washingtonexaminer.com.