By Thomas Boswell
Monday, November 7, 2005
Sometimes you're good. Sometimes you're lucky. When you've just been beaten 36-0 the previous week, take lucky. Sometimes talent matters most. Sometimes it is just toughness. When you get the break of playing the Philadelphia Eagles without suspended Terrell Owens, it's time for everybody, both the healthy and the hurting, to suit up.
For the Redskins last night at FedEx Field, both luck and toughness combined to bring a vitally important 17-10 Washington victory over the Eagles to reach the halfway point in the season at 5-3 -- still a contender, not a pretender. After suffering the worst loss in Coach Joe Gibbs's NFL career at the Meadowlands a week ago, the Redskins got a season's worth of good breaks, Philly flubs and bonus bounces in a victory that, with a normal balance of blessings, might have ended otherwise.
"I can definitely say that things did bounce our way at times. We were blessed tonight," Gibbs said. Gibbs gave the "special" game ball to 335-pound offensive guard Derrick Dockery who, by a combination of hustle and good fortune, fell on a Chris Cooley fumble at the Philadelphia 6-yard line in the third quarter with the score tied at 10.
In a blink, what might have been a crushing Redskins mistake turned into first and goal and a chance for what Gibbs described as "a huge win." In the tunnel under the FedEx stands after the game, Gibbs was still beaming, proud of several players -- including Cooley, who had seven catches for 85 yards -- who played despite injuries that made them doubtful late in the week. "Now, we've positioned ourselves to play big games in the second half of the season," Gibbs said. "The difference between winning this game and losing it is, you might say, the difference between facing big games now and desperation games."
On the first play after Dockery's fumble recovery, Clinton Portis scored on a six-yard run for the game-winning touchdown. And where did his momentum naturally carry him? Straight ahead to where his mother was sitting in the stands so he could hand her the ball. That's when you know the breaks are running your way.
Earlier in the game, officials checked an instant replay of a sideline catch by Portis in which neither his feet nor knees landed inbounds. Officials called the catch good because Portis "had both elbows inbounds." How do you catch a pass and land with both elbows, but no other parts of your body, inbounds? By being a great athlete or not having a spinal column.
That's the kind of night it was for the Redskins -- a mixture exceptional "elbows inbounds" extra effort, plus the smiles of football fortune. The Redskins scored their first touchdown -- a virtual gift -- when a needless 39-yard pass interference penalty gave Washington a first down at the Philadelphia 1-yard line. The Eagles' Lito Sheppard didn't realize that Mark Brunell had underthrown David Patten on a bomb up the right sideline. When conservative play would have sufficed -- Sheppard was shepherding Patten step-for-step -- he chose desperation instead, dragging Patten down before the ball arrived. On the next play, the Redskins scored their first touchdown.
All night the fates smiled -- practically grinned -- on the Redskins. If a Philadelphia punt bounced near the goal line, it ended up being a harmless touchback. If the Redskins kicked the ball, it would be downed in the shadow of the Eagles goal line. In the final minute of the first half, Brunell fumbled on a sack. If any of the swifter Eagles had picked up the ball, he'd have scored easily. Instead, one of the slowest, defensive lineman Juqua Thomas, scooped it up and was caught from behind.
The Eagles' dopiest moment came in the final second of the first half. From the Redskins 24-yard line with 10 seconds to play, quarterback Donovan McNabb faked spiking the ball as though he were trying to stop the clock. Then he looked deep to throw a bomb. He never got the chance. The Redskins' 290-pound Phillip Daniels sniffed out the play and squashed McNabb for a sack as the half expired. No field goal attempt. In the biggest break of all, however, the Eagles' best player -- Owens -- was suspended Saturday for the latest in his succession of bush-league selfish quotes. Not only was he kept out of the game, but the Eagles wouldn't even allow him in FedEx Field. Who knows, he might have decided to wear a sandwich board sign. So, in the final Eagles series of the game, when Philadelphia reached a first down at the Redskins 13-yard line, their No. 1 threat was nowhere near Washington. After reaching the seven, three final passes by McNabb failed, the last, on fourth down, ending up in the stomach of Ryan Clark for an unavoidable and killing interception.
So, in a game that could have gone either way and which both clubs fervently needed, the Redskins emerged with a 5-3 record -- still standing and perhaps, even touched with a bit of playoff destiny. Remember that 14-13 win in Dallas?
The Eagles, however, divided over their "No T.O." controversy, find themselves at 4-4 with their chances of postseason play, much less a fifth straight NFC East title, very much in doubt.
"I thought we might have as many as seven players who would miss this game with injuries," said Gibbs, including Daniels who had the crucial fake-spike sack of McNabb. "Why run the risk of playing? Why not sit out a week? But they didn't. You don't win with tricks and [coach's] plays. You win with character and tough guys." Last season, the Redskins found ways to lose most of their many close games. This season, the reverse has been true. In part this may be Gibbs's coaching influence. But, more likely, it is the personnel decisions by his entire staff -- searching for and keeping those tough guys who, it seems, may be starting to think their luck has changed. "Last year we just didn't know how to win," said safety Sean Taylor who, along with Portis, wore goofy-looking, decidedly against NFL-regulation game socks. "Now we're starting to play all four quarters and think that, in the end, things will go our way."
While the Redskins may have gotten the breaks this time, they also capitalized on them. Only luck that lasts really counts -- luck that can be translated into victory. On this night, the Redskins not only counted their blessing but cashed them in.
"We were fortunate," said Brunell, mentioning Dockery's recovery specifically. "That was huge. It doesn't always happen that way." But it did in this game. Once, when James Thrash fumbled a punt at midfield, the ball rolled into a pile that contained one Redskin, Pierson Prioleau, and four Eagles. The ball bounced straight into Prioleau's midsection and stayed there.
If the Redskins ever needed a night on their home field when a division rival played without its big-mouth star and most of the breaks went their way, it was this Washington team after its Giants debacle.
Now comes the next test. Given the chance to play "big games" rather than "desperation games," will the Redskins play their best consistently? Or, despite important victories this year over both the Cowboys and Eagles, will games that bring back memories of the Meadowlands return to haunt the Redskins again?