SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 18 -- The nationally televised stage didn't mask a seemingly irrelevant game between two once-proud franchises. But Washington's defense, a bright spot in an otherwise dreary season, treated the matchup as monumental and led the Redskins to a 26-16 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday at Monster Park.
The Redskins intercepted quarterback Ken Dorsey four times, including one that linebacker Antonio Pierce returned 78 yards for a touchdown. Washington's defense, ranked second in the league, allowed too many yards in the fourth quarter to overcome the Pittsburgh Steelers for the top spot this week. But Pierce's interception late in the second quarter fulfilled one of the unit's goals: scoring a defensive touchdown for the first time this season.
Redskins wide receiver Rod Gardner hauls in a catch during the 2nd quarter as fellow receiver Laveranues Coles runs interference against 49ers' Shawntae Spencer, left, and Dwaine Carpenter.
(Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
"We're playing, of course, to win every game and to be the number one defense," Pierce said. "The no-name defense trying to be number one."
The Redskins are 5-9. Although the outcome left the team mathematically alive in the playoff chase, its chances are extremely slim with two games left. So Washington's players are playing for pride and other areas not related to the playoffs.
Clinton Portis gained 110 yards on 35 carries to maintain a chance to become the first tailback in NFL history to gain 1,500 yards in his first three seasons. Quarterback Patrick Ramsey gave another strong performance in his audition to become the team's long-term quarterback; he finished the game 18 of 27 for 214 yards, throwing one touchdown and no interceptions while guiding Coach Joe Gibbs's ball-control offense.
"The thing that I can really brag on our guys about is they continue to fight. It's been every single week," Gibbs said. "I've got to give the 49ers credit. I thought they fought hard. We knew that would probably be the case. Today some of the things out there weren't pretty, but I felt like we'll fight and play hard. If there's one thing I'd like to have in a football team, it's that."
The defense, with linebacker LaVar Arrington making his first appearance since the second week of the season, handed a reality check to Dorsey and tailback Maurice Hicks. The pair led the 49ers to only their second victory of the season last week. Dorsey finished Saturday's game 20 for 38 for 206 yards and 4 interceptions, with a 46.5 rating, and Hicks was held to 37 yards on 11 carries.
Washington led 26-9 entering the fourth quarter and on the sideline the players got word that the No. 1 defensive ranking was within reach. Pierce said that players were aware that the Steelers had given up 278 yards in their 33-30 victory over the New York Giants earlier in the afternoon. But the unit wasn't as sturdy in the fourth quarter, during which Dorsey threw an 11-yard touchdown pass. The Redskins' defense gave up 254 yards, and so remain 36 yards short of No. 1.
"We knew what Pittsburgh did," Pierce said. "We were upset we gave up so many yards [in the fourth quarter]. At least we got a win out of it."
Despite a frustrating season, Portis entered the game needing 327 yards to become the first tailback in NFL history to amass 1,500 rushing yards in his first three NFL seasons. He needs 217 yards in the final two games to reach that goal.
"Clinton Portis is one heck of a back," Gibbs said. "If you stop and consider all the people who have played football, all the great backs that have been and he's on the verge of being there where he can maybe have a chance. Whether we can do that or not, I don't know, but I think that says a lot about him."
The Redskins led 23-9 at halftime, largely because of three interceptions by the defense and sharp play by Ramsey. The Redskins had to settle for field goals after their offense couldn't parlay the first two interceptions into touchdowns. But Pierce made the third interception and returned it 78 yards to give Washington a comfortable lead with just under a minute left before halftime.
Before Pierce's touchdown, the 49ers appeared to be in the midst of a promising drive. But on third and eight from the Washington 23-yard line, Pierce intercepted a Dorsey pass intended for wideout Cedrick Wilson. Pierce sprinted down the left sideline as dozens of Redskins fans who were in attendance at Monster Park cheered loudly. Pierce's first career interception returned for a touchdown was so certain that he slowed down before scampering into the end zone to give Washington a 13-point lead.
The game had appeared headed for a blowout after the Redskins' opening drive. Gibbs eschewed the pass-heavy approach that teams have used successfully against the 49ers this season. One of the few bright spots in San Francisco's dismal season has been its run defense. And the 49ers held Portis to 39 yards on 17 carries in the first half.
But Gibbs's gambit to run the football regularly early in the game worked as the Redskins marched 10 plays and 72 yards to take a 7-0 lead. On second and seven from the San Francisco 12, Ramsey faked a handoff, then feigned an end-around before zipping a pass to tight end Robert Royal, who broke a tackle on the right sideline before stretching his left arm to break the goal-line plane.
San Francisco (2-12) countered with its only long drive of the half: nine plays and 71 yards, punctuated by a 17-yard touchdown pass to wideout Brandon Lloyd. But on San Francisco's next possession, Washington's defense immediately showed that it wasn't going to let down. On the first play of the drive, rookie safety Sean Taylor sprinted to his left and leaped high to intercept a pass. Taylor ran down the left sideline, then dashed up the middle. When Taylor was met by a group of tacklers after returning it 30 yards, the safety pitched the ball to linebacker Lemar Marshall, who galloped into the end zone, seemingly giving the Redskins a 14-7 lead.
But the 49ers challenged the lateral, contending it went forward. San Francisco won the challenge, giving Washington the ball at its 41-yard line instead. The Redskins drove 28 yards and Jeff Chandler made a 49-yard field goal for a 10-7 Washington lead. Chandler was playing in his first game for the Redskins after John Hall was placed on the injured reserve with a torn right quadriceps. Chandler played his first two seasons in the NFL, 2002 and 2003, with the 49ers.
Washington's second interception came two San Francisco drives later. On second and three from the San Francisco 44, Dorsey was hit by linebacker Marcus Washington as he threw. Defensive end Ron Warner looked like the intended receiver, and rumbled 39 yards down the left sideline to the Washington 9. But San Francisco showed its competitiveness by stifling Washington's drive after two runs by Portis and a shuffle pass to H-back Chris Cooley. Chandler's 20-yard field goal gave the Redskins a 16-7 lead.
Arrington played for the first time after missing 11 games as a result of a bone bruise on his right knee. The outside linebacker played a limited role early -- appearing mostly on third-down plays -- before getting into the regular rotation over Lemar Marshall in the third quarter. Arrington underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his knee on Sept. 23, and was initially expected to be out no more than four weeks. But he aggravated the injury in late October and doctors discovered a bone bruise to the knee. He didn't return to practice until last week.