By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
The gravity of their situation -- needing to win their remaining games to prolong the season -- probably sparked the change as much as anything else. For 11 games, the Washington Redskins were a suspect second-half team, particularly so in the fourth quarter, but for the last four weeks, they have dominated games in the late stages.
During a three-game losing streak last month, players sometimes wondered when the next bad break might come. Now, the question is, who will make the next game-altering play, with the offense, defense and special teams all contributing in a 4-0 surge? The second-half reversal is largely the reason Washington (9-6) controls its postseason fate entering the regular season finale, knowing a win Sunday at Philadelphia would clinch at least the final wild-card berth, and perhaps even the NFC East title, should New York lose on New Year's Eve at Oakland.
The Redskins have not reached the postseason since 1999 -- only right tackle Jon Jansen has been with the franchise continuously since then -- and have not won four straight games this late in the season since 1989, when Joe Gibbs's team won five in a row and finished 10-6, yet missed the playoffs. Gibbs realizes that without a changed approach to the second half of games, his team would probably be considering offseason changes rather than playoff possibilities.
"If we would have lost any game in there, we're done and if we lose this game, we're done," Gibbs said. "It's a matter of life and death each week, and they seem to have responded really well to that. Hey, a lot of teams would have said, 'We're not going to do this; it ain't going to happen; we've lost three tough games.' And instead they bounced back with their backs to the wall and had a great response, so I think the credit goes to them."
The Redskins blew three straight second-half leads, to Tampa Bay, Oakland and San Diego, and fell to 5-6. They were outscored 30-7 in the fourth quarter and overtime of those games, and players on both sides of the ball bemoaned the lack of a killer instinct. Now, the Redskins are putting away teams in the third and fourth quarter, not allowing opponents to hang around or threaten comebacks of any sort.
"I just think that everybody believes now," linebacker LaVar Arrington said. "And when you get a situation where everybody believes in the same thing, and you get the momentum going in one direction, I've said it all along: We've got a special group of guys. This is a special mix we have, and to not take advantage of that is a crime. And I think guys really focused in that we were letting the season slip away."
After being outscored 128-103 in the second half of the first 11 games, they have outscored opponents 49-15 in the second half during their 4-0 run (the longest of the second Gibbs era). They have scored as many fourth-quarter touchdowns in the past four weeks -- five -- as they did in the first 11 games, and more points, 35, than they had through the first 11 fourth quarters of the season (23). Defensively, they have allowed only one fourth-quarter touchdown in the past four games, and that came with the Redskins leading Dallas 35-0.
"It's just from guys wanting to get into the playoffs," said tailback Clinton Portis, who has topped 100 yards in each game during this winning streak. "It's everybody having the same drive, and everybody having the same goal and everybody having the same focus. I guess after that San Diego loss [in overtime, Nov. 27 to drop Washington to 5-6], knowing how close we were in those three games and losing at the end, it was just people getting tired and saying, 'I'm fed up with that. We've got to cut this out. It's not going to happen.' And I think the whole team definitely responded."
The change began the following week at St. Louis. Washington clung to another small lead -- 10-7 -- after three quarters, but capped a 69-yard drive with a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Mark Brunell fumbled in the end zone, and alertly swept the ball out of bounds for a safety rather than risk yielding a touchdown. The Rams fumbled their first snap after the ensuing free kick, the Redskins recovered and ran eight straight times en route to a game-clinching score in a 24-9 win.
Arizona led 10-3 at the half the next week, but the Redskins drove 80 yards in 13 plays -- including 10 runs, a common theme -- to tie the game after the kickoff. The defense forced a field goal after the Cardinals drove to the 2, then Antonio Brown returned the ensuing kick 91 yards for the game-winning touchdown in a 17-13 victory. The Redskins led Dallas 28-0 at the half, then negated any hope of a wild comeback by forcing a fumble on the Cowboys' first drive of the third quarter, and scoring an immediate touchdown off of it.
On Saturday, the Redskins led 21-17 at the half, then Renaldo Wynn blocked a field goal try and Patrick Ramsey, in place of an injured Brunell, produced a 72-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss. Defensive end Phillip Daniels had a sack that stalled a drive and forced another field goal attempt as the Redskins pulled away for a 35-20 win. In all four wins, Washington held the ball for at least 8 minutes 30 seconds, in the final quarter, and converted on 67 percent of its third-down opportunities.
"We're starting to realize what kind of a team we have and we're starting to maximize our potential and kind of start putting things into motion," linebacker Marcus Washington said. "We knew we were a good team, and pretty much competed with everybody we played against, but we're starting to just get that real confidence that we can beat these good teams, and we're starting to do it. I think with each win we're just getting more confident, and it's a real good thing for us."