The circumstances could hardly have been more ideal for the Washington Redskins. After defeating the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams on Monday night, they had home-field advantage and a golden opportunity to take control of the NFC East with yesterday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
But the Redskins stumbled badly, committing two costly turnovers that led to the Eagles' only touchdowns, and lost, 23-20, before a mostly dejected crowd of 83,284 at FedEx Field.
Donovan McNabb cuts behind Na Brown's block on Darrell Green on 54-yard scramble that set up Philadelphia's winning score.
(Rich Lipski - The Washington Post)
The Redskins had a chance to force overtime with 1 minute 21 seconds remaining, but place kicker Eddie Murray was wide right on a 44-yard field goal attempt after quarterback Jeff George had driven his team from its 27 to the Eagles 26.
As a result, the Eagles (9-4), led by gifted second-year quarterback Donovan McNabb, took a giant step toward what could be their first division title since 1988. And the Redskins (7-5), who fell 1 1/2 games behind in their bid to repeat as NFC East champions, must focus their hopes on a wild-card bid just to compete for the Super Bowl title they had hoped to win when the season dawned.
Playing without Pro Bowl running back Stephen Davis, who was made inactive just before the opening kickoff with a fractured right forearm, the Redskins rushed for a season-low 44 yards against the NFL's 23rd-ranked rushing defense.
Davis's absence was felt acutely on a crucial fourth-quarter drive in which the Redskins had a chance to take the lead. George had marched the offense to the Philadelphia 3. But given seven chances--including two on the Philadelphia 1--the Redskins failed to get the ball into the end zone and had to settle for a field goal that tied the game at 20. "That was ridiculous," said George of his team's inability to score a touchdown.
Meanwhile, McNabb turned in a virtuoso performance despite having few offensive tools to work with, throwing for one touchdown and scrambling for another en route to a 125-yard rushing day that was just two yards short of Chicago's Bobby Douglass's NFL single-game rushing record for a quarterback, set in 1972.
"I'm not trying to take away from what the other guys did on the field," said safety Mark Carrier. "But [McNabb] basically carried them offensively and kept them in the game."
"Now we have to start scoreboard watching," said left guard Keith Sims. "We've got to figure out all these little scenarios: Can we still possibly win the division? We have to worry about getting in the playoffs, first and foremost. We took away any possible cushion we had. It's gone."
Davis wasn't the only Redskin missing. Washington lost linebacker LaVar Arrington to a concussion in the first quarter. Albert Connell, the team's number one wide receiver, left the game soon afterward with a sprained knee. And linebacker Shawn Barber and running back Skip Hicks missed several series with a laceration and hamstring strain, respectively.
Still, no player was making excuses for this defeat in the somber locker room afterward.
"We said it from the get-go: 'If we don't turn the ball over, we'll win.' We have that much confidence in our defense," said George. "It didn't happen. Once again, turnovers killed us."
George had an impressive day in his third start for the Redskins, completing 25 of 43 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns. But he also had a hand in one of the turnovers: a fumbled snap early in the third quarter with the Redskins ahead, 14-10, that was recovered by Philadelphia's Brian Dawkins at the Redskins 21. On the next play, McNabb faked a handoff and took off up the left sideline, eluding defensive end Bruce Smith and Carrier before dragging safety Matt Stevens with him into the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown.
Coach Norv Turner had said repeatedly that regardless of George's performance, Brad Johnson would return as the Redskins' starting quarterback as soon as he recovers from a partial tear in his medial collateral knee ligament--possibly next week. Asked yesterday if George had done anything to change that view, Turner said: "No, I don't think so. As I said, both guys are starting quarterbacks. Both guys are capable.