Clinch Is No Cinch

By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 2, 2006

PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 1 -- Had middle linebacker Lemar Marshall not swatted a pass into the air, then intercepted it in the fourth quarter, the Washington Redskins might have spent Sunday night hoping for a Dallas loss to send them to the playoffs. Had tailback Clinton Portis not taken the ensuing carry 22 yards for a touchdown, the franchise still might be waiting for its first postseason berth since the 1999 season. Had defensive end Phillip Daniels not caused a sack and fumble, and safety Sean Taylor not returned the ball 39 yards for a score, maybe the Eagles would have mustered a crushing comeback win.

On an evening in which their postseason fortunes swung from minute to minute, the Redskins overcame their own gaffes and the injury-plagued Philadelphia Eagles with the formula that has defined this second Joe Gibbs era: timely plays from the defense, and production from the ground game. The Redskins capitalized on six turnovers and pulled away late for a 31-20 win at Lincoln Financial Field, winning the NFC's final wild-card spot with a run of five straight victories.

This win was as unsightly as any since Gibbs (57-18 in December and January all-time) returned from an 11-season retirement in January 2004. The run, which included victories over NFC East rivals Dallas, New York and Philadelphia, put the Redskins in the playoffs, a place the team has been only once since Gibbs left coaching in 1993. Washington plays Tampa Bay, the NFC South champion, at 4:30 Saturday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium. The Redskins lost there on Nov. 13, falling 36-35 on a controversial two-point conversion. A win there would send them to top-seeded Seattle the following weekend.

Five weeks ago, none of this seemed feasible, with Washington (10-6; 10-2 against the NFC) blowing second-half leads in three straight games to drop to 5-6. Knowing another loss would end their season, they reeled off five wins in row to close a season for the first time since 1989. Portis, who set a franchise record with 1,516 rushing yards, and Santana Moss, who set the franchise mark with 1,483 receiving yards, keyed the offensive resurgence, which topped 30 points in each of the final three games. The defense, which might be without star cornerback Shawn Springs for the duration of this run, prospered as a collective, with linemen, linebackers and defensive backs contributing to an improbable ride.

"Trying to win five straight is a tough deal up here," said Gibbs, 16-16 in two seasons back. "Human nature being what it is, you win a few games and feel better about yourself and back off a little bit. But our guys seemed to understand what it was going to take. Our backs were against the wall for five straight weeks, and we seemed to respond."

This game was a microcosm of the season, with some awful stretches of play and a lost early lead (Washington opened 2005 3-0) before a final push. Washington trailed 17-7 at one point and 17-10 at the half, with quarterback Mark Brunell (strained right knee) erratic, and the defense yielding chunks of passing yards with its wounded secondary (Springs aggravated a serious groin injury and left at halftime, while starting corner Carlos Rogers was out with a torn biceps).

"They gave us some fits," Brunell said. "Fortunately, we came up with enough plays on offense to get some points."

The turnaround began with a 72-yard drive to open the second half, with the man most responsible for Washington's downfield resurgence making the biggest play. Moss was sent in motion to get single coverage with cornerback Sheldon Brown down the sideline, and teammate Taylor Jacobs gained inside position on his defender to draw the safety inside. Moss turned to anticipate Brunell's pass and hauled down a 54-yard bomb, dancing around the sideline for a few extra yards, and Portis pounding six more yards over two plays for the touchdown.

"Mark just hung the ball up and said, 'Hey make the play,' " Moss said.

Eagles quarterback Mike McMahon went right back after the Redskins' depleted secondary on the next drive, however, and hit Greg Lewis for 20 yards. Former Maryland standout Bruce Perry surged for 11 yards and former Redskin David Akers capped the drive with a 35-yard field goal, giving the Eagles a 20-17 lead early in the third quarter.

That lead held into the final period. With the Eagles facing third and 15 at their 20 early in the fourth, Marshall followed McMahon's eyes, braced for a pass to Perry and made a stunning play. Marshall, who had a key interception a week ago and leads Washington with four this season, deflected the ball with his left hand, tracked it and hauled it in.

"It was hanging low enough for me to tip it," Marshall said, "and the rest is history."

Portis, who has five straight 100-yard games, scored what would be the game-winning touchdown on the next play, a 22-yard trek. Tackle Mike Patterson had him trapped for a loss, but Portis spun out, then plowed through another tackle to get outside. Moss, his college teammate, threw a strong block to help Portis down the sideline and he dove inside the pylon for a 24-20 lead.

"I think that play was designed for a two-yard loss," Portis said. "But I was fortunate. With the spin move, [Patterson] disappeared, and all I saw was daylight."

McMahon fumbled the snap on the ensuing possession and Redskins tackle Joe Salave'a recovered. Replacement quarterback Koy Detmer was stripped by Daniels, and Taylor returned the ball for a score. Next possession, Detmer threw an interception. By then, Washington's sideline was abuzz, and although Gibbs avoided a Gatorade shower, Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, did not.

"We knew we needed to make some big plays at the end of the game to seal it out," Taylor said. "And we were able to do that."

But it was never easy. Akers made a 49-yard field goal to open the scoring, with assistance from the crossbar, then Mike Sellers recovered a fumbled punt and caught a four-yard pass for his eighth touchdown and a 7-3 lead. McMahon connected twice on third and eight, then found Reggie Brown over the middle for a 33-yard touchdown in the first quarter, with cornerback Walt Harris trailing in vain. L.J. Smith beat Taylor for a 48-yard gain, and McMahon tripped himself up for a sack, had a fumble recovered by a teammate, benefited from pass interference on third and 21, and finally hit Brown in the end zone again.

The Redskins mustered a field goal to make it 17-10, but Brunell, who said his knee felt "fine," threw an interception to end a shoddy first half. Gibbs was more emotional than usual in the locker room, players said, seizing the import of the final 30 minutes, and the Redskins responded in kind.

"To win five in a row says a lot about this football team, its character, and how we stuck together," Brunell said. "To win 10 games in this league is difficult to do. To do it the way we did says a lot."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company