"Unbelievable," defensive end Bruce Smith kept saying. "Just unbelievable."
But now the Washington Redskins believe it, and perhaps in themselves, as well. They became true believers early yesterday evening after one of the most improbable victories in team history was set up by Deion Sanders's stunning 57-yard punt return in sudden-death overtime.
Larry Centers, No. 37, is almost orbital as he scrambles up and over the Buccaneers' Damien Robinson and the rest of Tampa Bay's defensive line.
(Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)
Sanders's daring dash to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 8-yard line was followed four plays later by Michael Husted's game-winning 20-yard field goal. The kick provided a jaw-dropping, gut-wrenching 20-17 Redskins victory over the Buccaneers before 83,532 mostly incredulous witnesses at FedEx Field.
There had to be a sense of redemption for Sanders, who signed a seven-year, $56 million contract during the offseason but had been unable to bust loose on one of his patented game-turning kick returns until today. Though he claims not to spend much time listening to his critics, they have been multiplying in recent weeks.
Asked if he had begun to doubt himself, the ever confident man known as "Prime Time" insisted "absolutely not. We have confidence in ourselves. I believe in me. We try on every single punt return, every time, and we finally got one. I love to compete in this type of pressure."
Added team owner Daniel M. Snyder, "Greatness always shines."
The pressure had been all-consuming for both teams, preseason Super Bowl favorites who both have 3-2 won-lost records. It had been particularly smothering for a Redskins defense that had suffocated the Bucs for most of the game, only to be burned by a fluke 46-yard touchdown pass from Tampa Bay quarterback Shaun King to wide receiver Reidel Anthony with two minutes left in the fourth quarter, cutting Washington's lead to three points.
Somehow, some way--including a blocked 35-yard-yard Washington field goal attempt--the Bucs managed to tie the score at 17 as time expired when Martin Gramatica connected on a 42-yard field goal, forcing a 15-minute sudden death overtime.
The Redskins trudged off the field after that kick and the Bucs seemed to float back toward their own sideline. But Redskins Coach Norv Turner said that when he looked over at Washington defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield and "two or three of them, I really felt like we'd win the football game."
The Redskins won the coin toss, took over at their 30, and were forced to punt four plays later against a re-energized Bucs defense, already considered the best in the NFL. Then it was the Redskins' turn to flex their muscles, and they, too, forced a punt after three plays gained one yard.
The kick came from the Bucs 15 less than three minutes into overtime. Sanders took Mark Royals's 50-yard punt at his 35, broke loose from a shoestring tackle attempt by Morris Unutoa, and was off and sprinting down the right side.
Royals prevented a touchdown by forcing Sanders to cut back toward the middle of the field, and he was finally tackled by Aaron Stecker at the 8 as the crowd roared in appreciation and his teammates mobbed Sanders. After three straight runs by Stephen Davis, Husted also redeemed himself for having a low, ugly 35-yard field goal attempt blocked by the Bucs with 43 seconds left in regulation.
This time, his 20-yard kick was never in doubt, and the Redskins now are tied for first place with the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles in the National Football Conference Eastern Division. Washington will travel to Philadelphia to face the Eagles next Sunday.
Back in the locker room, heads were shaking all around over the dramatic events of the final minutes in regulation and overtime, particularly King's 46-yard touchdown pass at the two-minute mark, the play that nearly started a disaster for the Redskins.