Garnell Wilds's dreadlocks danced outside his helmet as the Washington Redskins' rookie cornerback shadowed Randy Moss, Minnesota's star wide receiver, for most of the second half. Washington's burly defensive linemen chest-bumped each other after each sack of Pro Bowl quarterback Daunte Culpepper. And even as spectators trickled out of FedEx Field in the fourth quarter yesterday with the outcome of the game determined, Washington's defenders exhibited intensity.
The Redskins failed to reach their goal of surpassing the Pittsburgh Steelers as the NFL's top-ranked defense. Nonetheless, the Redskins won, 21-18, to end their disappointing season on a positive note, exhibiting the same spirit as in the season opener nearly four months ago.
Tailback Ladell Betts, starting in place of the injured Clinton Portis, bursts through the Minnesota defense on the way to career highs of 118 yards on 26 carries. "I just tried to do my best," Betts said.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
"Sixteen straight weeks, we lost games almost every way you could lose them," Coach Joe Gibbs said after the game. "And yet our guys kept coming back and it's a tribute to them, their character. I'm really proud of them."
The outcome was especially impressive because the Vikings needed a victory to guarantee a wild-card berth in the playoffs. Minnesota (8-8) made it only because the New Orleans Saints beat the Carolina Panthers, 21-18.
The Redskins finished with a record of 6-10, Gibbs's worst season in 13 years as a head coach. But Washington avoided offensive ignominy by scoring three offensive touchdowns for only the second time this season. Tailback Ladell Betts, who filled in for the injured Clinton Portis, ran with power and pizzazz to produce career highs in carries (26) and rushing yards (118). And quarterback Patrick Ramsey completed some rare deep passes and finished the day having completed 17 of 26 passes for 216 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.
The Redskins entered the game needing to score at least 11 points to avoid a franchise low for total points scored in a season since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978 (not including the strike-shortened 1982 season). They avoided that distinction, as well as another one: The Redskins were penalized only three times for a season-low 13 penalty yards. It left them 66 yards short of the club mark for penalty yards (1,110), set in 1948.
Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache had joked before the game that Minnesota's offense -- ranked third in the league -- contained weapons of mass destruction. But Washington's blitz-heavy defense discombobulated Culpepper and blanketed his talented corps of receivers. Despite being difficult to tackle at 6 feet 4, 264 pounds, Culpepper was sacked four times. "We probably missed five or six other ones because we couldn't get him down," said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense. "He's such a tremendous athlete."
The Redskins disguised their defenses to confound Culpepper, often feigning a blitz before backing off. When Culpepper expected heavy blitzing, Washington often played more conservatively, keeping its pass defenders back.
"I don't think they knew when we were blitzing and when we weren't," Redskins linebacker Antonio Pierce said.
On the Vikings' first possession of the second half, the Redskins brought Culpepper down three times in five plays. Lineman Demetric Evans sacked Culpepper first, presenting the Vikings with a third and 15 from their 38-yard line. After a 16-yard completion to Moss and a one-yard run by tailback Michael Bennett, Culpepper was tackled again as he attempted to throw, this time by Evans and Lemar Marshall. On the next play, defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin dove at Culpepper's feet to bring him down, forcing a punt and causing one of the biggest roars of the day from the crowd of 76,876. Griffin beat his chest several times before linebacker Chris Clemons jumped on him.
Going into the game, Washington trailed Pittsburgh by 94 yards in total defense, which is measured by total offensive yards allowed. But Washington yielded 320 yards -- 80 on Minnesota's final drive that culminated with an alley-oop pass from Culpepper to 6-3 wideout Marcus Robinson, who leaped over defenders for a touchdown with two seconds left. The Steelers limited the Bills to 267 yards in their 29-24 victory to retain their No. 1 defensive ranking. The Redskins finished third, ironically, being overtaken by the Bills. Buffalo gave up just 262 yards to Pittsburgh.
The Redskins' season started with great hope after the announcement of Gibbs's return. But the Redskins needed yesterday's victory to finish one game better than Gibbs's predecessor, Steve Spurrier, who resigned last year after finishing 5-11 in his second season with the team.
After the game, Gibbs shook Williams's hand and trotted off the field with the same steely expression he has shown after so many losses. Later, Gibbs spoke extensively about a bright future for the Redskins.
As proof, Gibbs touted his defense and used yesterday's overall performance by the team. "I'm anxious to get started. The offseason will be a big time for us," Gibbs said. "I think it will be one of the most important six months of my coaching career, trying to help ourselves every way we can. The most important thing is that our guys wanted to finished strong. There with nothing on the line but pride."