By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 25, 2005
The surging Washington Redskins, playing their last home game of the regular season before a raucous crowd at FedEx Field, continued another Joe Gibbs December run to remember yesterday, beating the rival New York Giants and moving a step closer to the team's first National Football League playoff appearance since 1999.
"All I Want For Christmas Is Revenge," one fan wrote in block letters on a homemade sign that was held aloft amid a sea of Redskins fans whose team has won four straight games for the first time in four years.
The Redskins' 35-20 Christmas Eve victory over their longtime rival in the National Football Conference's East Division, a team that had decimated them, 36-0, two months ago in one of Washington's lowest points of the season, left Gibbs giving thumbs-up and blowing kisses to the crowd of 90,477 as he dashed off the field.
The Redskins will go to Philadelphia next Sunday for their regular season finale knowing that a fifth straight victory will clinch a playoff berth and erase the memory of a 5-6 start. A victory in Philadelphia, where the Redskins haven't won since 2001, would give Washington at least one of two wild-card spots in the NFC playoffs. If Washington wins and the Giants (10-5) lose at Oakland the same day, the Redskins would win the NFC East. Washington could lose to the Eagles and still earn a playoff spot if Dallas and Minnesota both lose one more game.
The Redskins, now 9-6, also are 4-0 this December, hardly a new trend under their 65-year-old head coach. Over his Hall of Fame career in Washington, Gibbs's record in games played in December and January is 56-18, hardly a coincidence for a coach who won three Super Bowl championships during his first, 12-season stint with the franchise.
"It feels like we're finally a good team again," said tackle Jon Jansen, the player with the longest continuous service with the franchise, having been with the team since the 1999 season. "We're not in the playoffs yet. But it's in our control."
Gibbs has always been known for making decisive in-game and in-season adjustments, and his decision to go back to basics with a grind-it-out running attack over the final portion of the schedule has transformed the team.
"I don't think it's anything we did coaching-wise," Gibbs said of the Redskins' ability to put their Oct. 30 loss to New York behind them. "I told the players last night, you don't win with X's and O's. . . . It's attitude you win with. Our players don't like getting beat. It's the first time in two years I felt we got manhandled in the regular season. I think guys took it upon themselves. They knew what was at stake, and there was the fact they beat us so bad up there."
And how did he explain his remarkable late-season success over so many seasons?
"It helps that we've had good football teams here in the past," he said. "It helps to be in the running. Guys are motivated, they're excited. Good players down the stretch will rise up. It's really a tribute to the players."
And there were plenty of players for whom tributes seemed most appropriate.
There was wide receiver Santana Moss, who celebrated being named to the Pro Bowl, the NFL's annual all-star game, for the first time in his career earlier in the week with three touchdown receptions -- a 17-yard pass from quarterback Mark Brunell in the first quarter, a 59-yarder from Brunell later in the same period, and a 72-yard catch of a pass by backup Patrick Ramsey with 5 minutes 45 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
There was running back Clinton Portis, who plays dress-up at his weekly news conferences but shows up as a real-deal running back almost every week. In the first loss to the Giants, he gained nine yards in four carries, but yesterday he more than atoned for the worst game of his pro career with 108 yards on 27 carries, including a 19-yard touchdown run with 12:43 left in the final period to clinch the victory.
Portis also stunned the Giants with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Chris Cooley late in the first half on a halfback option play. It was Portis's fourth straight 100-yard rushing game and eighth of the season, a team record.
There also was Ramsey, who hadn't played since the last Giants game. Ramsey, who lost the starting quarterback job in the first game of the season, came off the bench midway through the third quarter after Brunell sprained his right knee taking a sack. Ramsey completed five of his seven passes for 104 yards and that touchdown throw to Moss for a 28-17 Washington lead. Gibbs said afterward that the severity of Brunell's injury would not be known until next week.
"I've told Patrick all year he's one play away," Gibbs said. "We all know that. We put a lot of attention into that. That's how important the second position is. I've appreciated how he's handled it all year. It's a tribute to him and his character. He was ready."
In the Redskins' locker room, many players also pointed toward 43-year-old Ray Brown as emblematic of the team's late-season resurgence. Forced into the starting lineup at right guard when Randy Thomas broke his right leg last week against the Dallas Cowboys, Brown held his own against a Giants defense that managed only a single quarterback sack, and the Redskins' running game churned out 156 yards.
"He came in there and he didn't miss a beat," Jansen said of Brown. "We counted on him on big plays. . . . It's a great comfort to be able to know you've got a guy with that kind of ability to come in, to have a guy who can play across the board. It's a great security blanket."
Brown, as usual, tried to play down the fact that he is by far the oldest offensive lineman in the league, saying: "I'm comfortable in my own skin. I don't look at myself as a freak. Now, I don't ever want to be 21 again. I know it will be a story about me playing at 43, but it's no big deal. I've been blessed, I really am. I know I can still do it this year, but definitely not next year."
Next Sunday, Brown will be in the lineup again against the Eagles with the opportunity to make it yet another stunning December and January to remember for Gibbs, the Redskins and their fans.