By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 12, 2005
TEMPE, Ariz., Dec. 11 -- The 12-minute halftime respite could not end fast enough. The Washington Redskins had wasted two quarters of a vital game, putting their playoff hopes in jeopardy with a slew of careless mistakes against an inferior opponent, and were eager to return to the field. In the visitors' locker room at Sun Devil Stadium, the players chatted about the need to reclaim the season right then.
The Redskins opened the second half with an emphatic touchdown drive -- refocusing on running the ball to tie the score -- and then won it, 17-13, on Antonio Brown's 91-yard kickoff return late in the third quarter. In doing so, Washington (7-6) remained a game behind a handful of teams chasing the final NFC wild-card spot, making their upcoming game against rival Dallas (8-5) even more significant.
There was little flair to this outing, with the Redskins again being plagued by penalties and turnovers in the first half, and deviating from the game plan of pounding the ball on the ground. The offense produced just three points despite the Cardinals' four turnovers (one more than Washington in the half). The defense allowed a few costly third-and-long plays and offensive lineman Chris Samuels called his teammates to attention during halftime in an effort to rectify the situation.
"We threw the ball away with a lot of turnovers, and that's been killing us all season long," Samuels said. "At halftime I just told the guys, we got ourselves into this mess, let's get ourselves out. Everybody went out and played with a lot of heart and passion. We just got it done. I'm happy."
More than anything, the Redskins needed a prolonged drive to start the third quarter. Quarterback Mark Brunell had thrown three interceptions, including two in the red zone, and had a 22.5 passer rating. "It was one of the worst halves I've ever had," the 13th-year veteran said. And Clinton Portis had a five-yard average per carry, yet Coach Joe Gibbs had called passes on 12 of the final 18 plays in the half.
The staff decided to recommit to attacking Arizona's suspect interior line with "downhill, power running plays," running backs coach Earnest Byner said. The Redskins churned out 80 yards on 13 plays -- 10 were runs -- to tie the score at 10 and keep the Cardinals' defense on the field for nearly eight minutes. That set the tone for the remainder of the game, and drew repeated ovations from the throng of Redskins fans in the sparse crowd.
"It was like a load off our back on the drive," guard Randy Thomas said. "We know if we just stick with it, the running game will get us downfield. That seems to be what's happening lately."
Gibbs went to the run on third and one during that possession, then called for another power run on fourth and two from the Arizona 32, with backup runner Ladell Betts converting. That sent a message to the team about Gibbs's confidence in the short yardage game after generally opting to kick or punt in those situations.
"Once it got down to it," Portis said, "we knew what our bread and butter was."
The drive was punctuated by Portis's 15-yard touchdown blast. Tackle Jon Jansen kicked out to the right, creating a hefty hole, Portis took a pitch outside and H-back Mike Sellers, the lead blocker, plowed ahead. Sellers steamrolled upfield, upending another Cardinal around the 5, and Portis (26 carries for 105 yards) reached the ball over the goal line before tumbling out of bounds.
"I'm running downfield and all of a sudden I feel him on the waist of my pants," Sellers said of Portis. "He was just directing me this way or that way, and I told him I would take care of it. He knew with me blocking for him, ain't nobody going to try to take me out."
The Cardinals, the NFL's worst rushing team, took to the air on the ensuing drive, as expected (nine passes to one run), and former league MVP Kurt Warner went repeatedly to premier wideout Anquan Boldin, who had another big game (nine catches for 114 yards) while the defense, and rookie cornerback Carlos Rogers in particular, neutralized Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona's other 1,000-yard wideout.
Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, leaned heavily on a six-defensive-back package that included four safeties -- to counter Arizona's passing tendencies. The defense conceded yards at times, but buckled down near the end zone and allowed only one touchdown. This drive stalled at the 2, with Neil Rackers kicking a 20-yard field goal that gave the Cardinals a brief 13-10 lead.
"We had to make sure we matched up on their receivers," end Renaldo Wynn said. "We knew they wanted to get the ball to those big-play receivers. That's how they score points. We had plenty of DBs out there, but then still got pressure from our three-man front."
Washington's special teams delivered the final blow on the ensuing kickoff. Brown, who was released after fumbling a kickoff in Week 1, sprinted 91 yards down the right sideline for his first NFL touchdown, adding personality to an often ugly game by blowing kisses to the Redskins fans cheering him on, and his family watching back home in Miami, before cruising into the end zone.
"I wasn't even touched at all," Brown said. "I've got 10 guys in front of me, and they all did a hell of a job."
The key to the touchdown was immediately establishing a massive wall of humanity in front of Brown when he caught the ball -- kicked by former Redskin Nick Novak -- then cordoning off an area near the sideline. "The wall in front of him allowed him to get the edge," said linebacker Khary Campbell. "They mash whoever they can mash, and he just flies to the cut and gets it outside."
Washington's fans overtook the stadium once more with cheers, and they comprised most of those still remaining by the time the Redskins put the game away. Portis, who went over 100 yards in consecutive games for the first time as a Redskin, surged ahead on third and six with less than two minutes to play, running through tackles and moving a pile of players to gain the first down, leaving the Cardinals unable to stop the clock.
Only then was it clear that the Redskins had their seventh victory, surpassing last season's total with three games against NFC East opponents left, and overcoming their first-half gaffes.
"It was a lot of frustration in here, and also confidence," Wynn said. "We didn't like how we played, but we knew we could take this game. We knew we hadn't played football like we're capable of playing."