By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 19, 2005
Phillip Daniels was airborne -- the 6-foot-5, 285-pound defensive lineman soaring as high as physically possible -- as he jabbed his left hand at the oncoming pass, deflecting it end over end. Teammate Cornelius Griffin, displaying as much grace as a 6-3, 300-pound defensive lineman could, tracked the ball over his shoulder and made a Willie Mays-esque interception on Dallas's opening offensive play of the game, the first tangible evidence that this would be a triumphant afternoon for the Washington Redskins.
It was but one of many signature moments in yesterday's 35-7 thrashing of the Cowboys at sold-out FedEx Field, a result that may be remembered as a springboard for Coach Joe Gibbs's second era in Washington. Griffin's interception led to the Redskins' first touchdown and the team pummeled Dallas, departing for halftime to a raucous ovation with all in attendance realizing the ramifications of this blowout: Washington (8-6) surpassed Dallas (8-6) in the NFC playoff race and is now in control of the final wild-card spot heading into Saturday's home game against the New York Giants.
By the half, quarterback Mark Brunell (125.6 passer rating) had thrown four touchdowns -- three to H-back Chris Cooley -- for a 28-0 lead, while the Cowboys mustered no response, with quarterback Drew Bledsoe pestered into seven sacks for the game in an utterly ineffective performance. Washington dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and the record crowd of 90,588 could quickly turn attention to other games on the scoreboard and begin calculating the various postseason permutations of this victory. The only setback was guard Randy Thomas's fractured fibula, which will require season-ending surgery today.
"We played the game of our life," Gibbs said. "I feel very humble just to be a part of it."
The Redskins swept the season series with Dallas for the first time since 1995 and posted their biggest margin of victory ever over the Cowboys, clinching a playoff tiebreaker in the process. Losses by Atlanta (8-6), Minnesota (8-6) and Tampa Bay (9-5) aided Washington's cause as well; the Redskins hold a tiebreaker over Minnesota and Atlanta given their superior conference record (8-2), although Tampa, currently the top wild-card seed, has a tiebreaker over the Redskins after beating them last month.
Washington has matched its season high with three straight wins -- recovering from a 2-6 stretch -- and is 3-1 in the NFC East after going 3-15 against divisional foes over the previous three seasons. Dallas and Washington had not played a game this meaningful this late in the season since 1992, with both club's playoff hopes in the balance. The Redskins played with a passion befitting that predicament, while Dallas was listless and trailed for nearly the entire 60 minutes.
"We looked like we couldn't handle it," Coach Bill Parcells said.
This was the antithesis of the first meeting between the teams when the Cowboys dominated for 55 minutes, then lost on two late bombs from Brunell to wide receiver Santana Moss. Washington's defense, thriving despite an injured secondary, struck first, with Daniels (a terror with four sacks) and Griffin combining on the first turnover. "I really do think that set the tone of the rest of the day," Daniels said. "We were just so focused for this game."
The offense took over at the Dallas 21-yard line; Cooley had a favorable matchup on linebacker DeMarcus Ware, and beat him easily on a route to the corner of the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown reception.
"Mark and I thought the same thing -- he's definitely going to throw me the ball," Cooley said. "I kind of turned [Ware] around out there. He's a great player, but to get him in coverage, I was pretty excited."
The Redskins followed that score with touchdowns on three of four possessions in the second quarter, putting the game out of reach. Tailback Clinton Portis (23 rushes for 112 yards to maintain his franchise-record pace) was briefly knocked out of the game by a powerful hit, so backup Ladell Betts delivered some retribution on the ensuing play. Gibbs called a power sweep to the left, Thomas pulled and Betts nailed cornerback Terence Newman in the back for a 10-yard gain after left guard Derrick Dockery had softened him up.
"He was in the way and I was just doing my job," Betts said. "I had to get somewhere, you know."
It was the epitome of physical offensive football, and was followed by a play requiring an equal amount of finesse. Brunell looked for Moss on a fade route down the right sideline, and he got behind cornerback Aaron Glenn in single coverage and made a 42-yard catch, to the 1-yard line. "That was your basic bomb," Brunell said. "He made a great catch."
Brunell connected again with Cooley three plays later from the 2 for a 14-0 lead, and Washington scored twice more in quick succession inside the two-minute warning.
The Redskins took over at the 34 following a weak punt. Cooley and right tackle Jon Jansen delivered strong blocks on a screen to Moss on the first play of the drive, as he darted to the 3. Brunell then lobbed to H-back Mike Sellers to make it 21-0.
Washington's defense continued attacking Bledsoe, who was not insolated in a maximum protection scheme this game, and linebacker Marcus Washington, one of numerous standouts yesterday, returned an interception 41 yards to put the Redskins back in scoring position. "We just didn't want to stop pouring it on," safety Sean Taylor said Brunell fired to Cooley on another short pass, and he rumbled 30-yards through three halfhearted tackle attempts for his third score, getting a downfield block from wide receiver Taylor Jacobs.
The Redskins stretched the lead to 35-0 on their opening march of the second half, displaying a killer instinct on offense missing for much of the season. Bledsoe was swarmed by the defense, sacked and fumbled ("We kind of got overwhelmed," Parcells said), with the Daniels recovering at the 21 -- eerily similar to Dallas's first drive of the game. Betts plowed one yard over the goal line after Portis got the ball on the first five plays of the possession.
Dallas prevented the shutout, but could take little solace from this game. The Cowboys next will visit NFC South-leading Carolina, while Minnesota will play at struggling Baltimore and Tampa Bay will host Atlanta. The Redskins, meantime, will try to avenge a 36-0 loss to the Giants, knowing a win would not only bolster their wild-card hopes, but keep their slim chance of a division championship alive as well.
"We're getting there, we're rebuilding something," Brunell said. "You're starting to see some signs of a Redskins team that is going to be good this year, and in years to come."