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By KEVIN CHROUST
(AP) -- The Washington Redskins have struggled enough this season with their franchise player at quarterback. They're going to give it a try without him for the final three games.
In an effort to protect Robert Griffin III's health, Kirk Cousins takes over as the starter Sunday when the Redskins visit the Atlanta Falcons in a matchup of 2012 division winners that now share the worst record in the NFC.
Coach Mike Shanahan says the move is designed to keep Griffin healthy as the Redskins (3-10) look to next year. Griffin has been sacked 24 times during five straight losses, and Washington plays two of its last three games on artificial turf, starting with this one.
Griffin will be the No. 3 QB and Rex Grossman will back up Cousins.
"I want to make sure he's healthy," Shanahan said. "I think that's the most important thing going into the offseason, that he has his first full offseason being healthy. And if he did play, and something happened to him, I think it would set our franchise back."
Cousins has made six career appearances for the Redskins. They won his only start, 38-21 at Cleveland on Dec. 16 as he threw for 329 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in Washington's fifth straight victory in a very different season.
"These are not the circumstances you necessarily want to be in when you start the season, but good or bad I got to be ready to go," Cousins said. "I can't control a lot of things going on, but I can control my preparation and I can control how I lead this team this weekend."
He replaced Griffin in a 45-10 home loss to Kansas City on Sunday, going 7 of 16 for 59 yards against one of the league's best defenses.
Atlanta (3-10) certainly isn't among that group, ranking 29th in points allowed (27.8) and 26th in yardage (379.4).
It hasn't much mattered what caliber of defense the Redskins have faced recently, however, as they've averaged 12.3 points the last four weeks.
Kansas City led 31-0 with 9:45 remaining in the first half Sunday.
"It's a terrible game to be a part of," Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo said.
The Falcons took a different route to similar disappointment in a 22-21 loss at Green Bay on Sunday. Atlanta led 21-10 at halftime before going silent.
Boasting an offense that was considered one of the most dangerous in the NFL coming into the season, the Falcons have been held to 18.4 points per game during a 1-6 stretch. Key injuries combined with limited pass protection for quarterback Matt Ryan has turned 2013 into a major letdown for a team that was one win from the Super Bowl last season.
"It's tough on everybody," offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "Nobody has higher expectations for the Falcons than the players and the coaches do. We haven't lived up to expectations. We haven't played as well as we're capable of on offense."
Ryan's 206 yards was his second-worst total of the year.
"It's disappointing," Ryan said. "We jumped out to an early lead, the defense created some turnovers for us and we capitalized on it, but we weren't able to get it done offensively in the second half."
Ryan is an interception away from matching a career worst and he's been sacked a career-high 31 times. He has eight TDs and 10 interceptions in the last seven games.
Atlanta's minus-11 turnover margin ranks second to last in the NFC.
Barring changes in the coming weeks, Griffin's second season comes to an end with 16 TD passes, 12 interceptions and an 82.2 rating in 13 games. He threw for 20 TDs with five picks and a 102.4 rating in 15 contests last year.
He's also gained only 489 yards rushing without a score after piling up 815 and seven in 2012, during which he suffered a torn ACL and LCL in his right knee.
"Of course I want to be out there and finish the season with my guys, see it through," Griffin said. "And (Shanahan) explained to me his reasoning. At the end of the day, Coach's decision is what we go with, and that's what it's always been. I have to do that. I have to sit here and do whatever I can to help Kirk."
The Falcons have won three straight against the Redskins, the most recent a 24-17 victory Oct. 7, 2012 in Washington. Cousins made his NFL debut and went 5 of 9 for 111 yards, a TD and two interceptions after Griffin left with a concussion.
Updated December 11, 2013