CHARLOTTE, Nov. 16 -- The Washington Redskins were left shaking their heads in disbelief and cursing their bad luck. That has been the typical postgame reaction by the Carolina Panthers' opponents this year.
The Redskins' season was knocked off course again Sunday at Ericsson Stadium when they ran into the NFL's good-karma team of 2003. Panthers tailback Stephen Davis beat his former club with a disputed three-yard touchdown run with just over a minute to play, giving Carolina a 20-17 win in front of 73,263.
Carolina's Muhsin Muhammad is brought down by Fred Smoot, left, and Jeremiah Trotter after a 28-yard gain in the second quarter. Muhammad caught nine passes for a season-high 189 yards.
(Chuck Burton - AP)
The emotionally charged confrontation between Davis and the team that released him last offseason was decided by an official's call and an instant-replay review. The Redskins thought they had caused a fumble when safety Matt Bowen slapped the ball from Davis's hands as Davis reached toward the goal line after being stopped short of the end zone by linebacker LaVar Arrington. But head linesman John Schleyer, stationed along the goal line, signaled that Davis had gotten the ball across the plane of the end zone before fumbling, and referee Gerald Austin announced after studying the replay: "There is not visual evidence to change the play on the field."
The Redskins (4-6) lost for the fifth time in their past six games, failing to sustain the momentum generated by their victory at home over the Seattle Seahawks a week ago. But they were just a typical opponent for the Panthers, who improved to 8-2 overall and 6-0 in games decided by three points or fewer.
"They seem to come from behind and win about every time they get in that position," Redskins Coach Steve Spurrier said.
The Redskins had plenty of would-haves and could-haves to ponder. Quarterback Patrick Ramsey overthrew two wide-open receivers on would-be touchdowns in the first half, and running back Rock Cartwright lost a first-quarter fumble at the Carolina 1-yard line. The Redskins allowed the Panthers to convert a fourth-and-one gamble on Carolina's winning drive when an uncovered Davis turned a pass from quarterback Jake Delhomme into a 25-yard gain.
Still, the Redskins would have escaped if they'd gotten the fumble call with 1 minute 9 seconds remaining to go their way -- although by the time it reached the replay stage, all they could have hoped for was the Panthers being given a third-down play from inside the 1-yard line, since the officials whistling the play dead would have negated any chance for a turnover.
"His knee was down," Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot said. "The ball didn't get to the plane. He put it out there and we knocked it out. He did not get in."
Said linebacker Jessie Armstead: "I'm biased, but it looked like it was our ball."
Bowen and some others in the Redskins' locker room focused on their breakdowns that enabled the game to be decided by a close call. "I thought it was [a fumble] but it doesn't matter," Bowen said. "We let them down there in the first place. We can't let it make or break on that one play. . . . That's why they're 8-2 and going to be a playoff team."
Davis got his revenge on the Redskins -- sort of. He rushed for 92 yards but needed 28 carries to do it, averaging 3.3 yards per attempt. He fumbled on Carolina's first play of the game. But he lost Redskins middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter on the fourth-down catch on the decisive drive, and got the winning touchdown.
"Those guys [his Panthers teammates] had my back on this one," said Davis, who surpassed 1,000 rushing yards for the season. "They knew that it was important for us as a team and for me personally. . . . I spent seven years of my career there and I know a lot of people there. It was very personal."
Delhomme completed 20 of 30 passes for 317 yards and ran for a third-quarter touchdown and Panthers wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad had nine receptions for 189 yards. The Panthers committed four turnovers but outgained the Redskins 427 yards to 181. Ramsey had fourth-quarter touchdown passes to wideouts Darnerien McCants and Patrick Johnson, but he was sacked three times and intercepted once, and completed only 16 of 35 throws for 150 yards.
Ramsey's struggles began on the game's first play. Wide receiver Laveranues Coles got free deep along the sideline, and Ramsey needed only to put his throw reasonably on target for a 65-yard touchdown. Instead, he tossed the ball well out of bounds. Spurrier said the wind might have been a factor in Ramsey's inaccuracy, but Ramsey dismissed that, and said: "I missed him."