By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 8, 2006
TAMPA, Jan. 7 -- When faced with a similar situation two months ago against the Washington Redskins, Tampa Bay Coach Jon Gruden mustered all of his guts and bravado and called for a power run on a game-deciding, two-point conversion at Raymond James Stadium. On Saturday, with less than eight minutes remaining in an NFC first-round slugfest between the same teams and the Buccaneers facing fourth and one from the Washington 19 and behind by a touchdown, Gruden deviated from his winning script.
And this time, the Redskins came away with a 17-10 victory that sends them to Seattle for a 4:30 p.m. playoff game Saturday against the Seahawks.
Gruden called for a play-action pass -- "We felt we had a play that would get the yard," he said -- and the Redskins' defense reacted perfectly. Linebacker Marcus Washington pressured quarterback Chris Simms, hitting him as he threw, lineman Phillip Daniels leaped to impede the pass and it fell harmlessly incomplete. Then the Redskins' offense, so inept on this day, gave Gruden another opportunity.
Struggling quarterback Mark Brunell made a poor decision on third down, scrambling to the sideline and forcing the ball across the middle of the field to Taylor Jacobs rather than throwing it away as he had all season. Cornerback Brian Kelly easily intercepted the pass and returned it to the Redskins 35. Three plays later, on third down, Simms found Edell Shepherd a step behind rookie cornerback Carlos Rogers for what appeared to be the game-tying score with less than three minutes to play.
The officials ruled that Shepherd, who caught a 30-yard touchdown to set up Tampa Bay's game-winning two-point conversion in its 36-35 win over Washington in November, lost control of the ball as he hit the ground, however. Video replay upheld the call, and the Redskins escaped with a win over the NFC South champs that will be remembered well after the controversy surrounding their regular season loss here is forgotten.
"On that one," Coach Joe Gibbs said of the replay decision, "you really just say a prayer and hope it goes your way."
Simms, who displayed a composure well beyond his 13th NFL start, said he could not argue with the interpretation of the play -- "If that's the rule, then that's the rule," he said -- while Gruden said: "It is what it is. I agree with the final verdict."
The Redskins (11-6), winners of six straight games, interpreted the outcome as vindication for their trip here Nov. 13, when they maintain Mike Alstott never crossed the goal line on the conversion, but also realized that without some close calls and a tenacious effort from their defense, their abysmal 120-yard offensive effort -- lowest ever by an NFL postseason victor -- would have ended their season.
Instead, they go on to face the top-seeded Seahawks (13-3, with one of those losses to Washington in Week 4) in Seattle next weekend with a chance to advance to the NFC championship game for the first time since winning their last Super Bowl under Gibbs (now third all-time with 17 playoff wins) following the 1991 season. Gibbs improved to 58-18 in December and January.
Saturday's result continued what has been an improbable turnaround for the franchise. Gibbs finished 6-10 last season, his first back since retiring in 1993, and the team was 5-6 after 11 games in 2005 but has not lost since Nov. 27. Gibbs's offense was overpowered by Tampa's top-ranked defense, yet still advanced. Brunell, two weeks after spraining his right knee, finished 7 for 15 for 41 yards and a 25.7 passer rating. ("If you looked at the numbers, you'd probably think otherwise, but the knee felt great," he said.) Tailback Clinton Portis (53 yards) and wide receiver Santana Moss (18 yards) were stifled after setting franchise records for yardage, but the defense scored a touchdown, set up another with an interception and squashed all chances of a comeback with linebacker Washington's interception with 65 seconds left.
"It feels like our offense lost, but it doesn't matter," H-back Chris Cooley said. "Next week no one will care."
The Buccaneers' offense was moving the ball with much better success, particularly in the second half, but never overcame a 17-3 halftime deficit. Simms hit meticulous short passes with uncanny accuracy for a spell, and capped his team's lone touchdown drive to start the third quarter by leaping over the goal line on a bootleg from the 2. The crowd amplified the noise late in the third quarter when Redskins second-year safety Sean Taylor had an altercation with running back Michael Pittman after a third-down play; Taylor spit in Pittman's face and Pittman smacked Taylor on the helmet.
The Redskins were given a 15-yard penalty -- keeping Tampa Bay's drive alive -- and Taylor was ejected (a fine and other disciplinary action could follow).
"I wish that hadn't happened," Gibbs said.
Washington was already without top cornerback Shawn Springs (groin), and end Renaldo Wynn (who broke his right forearm in the first half), and clung to its 17-10 lead with an undermanned defense. Simms was picking through the depleted secondary when Gruden opted to throw on fourth down after using a timeout.
"They tried to switch it up," linebacker Lemar Marshall said. "But we were in a great coverage, and Marcus had pressure."
Shepherd came down with his would-be touchdown with just less than three minutes left, with Rogers reaching for the ball. "I was just trying to get my hand in there," Rogers said. "And once I looked up at the replay and saw he juggled the ball, I knew it was out." The officials concurred, Gruden was out of timeouts after losing the replay challenge, and Washington's interception clinched the win.
Rogers said the Redskins were eager to start this game on defense as well -- wanting to prove themselves equal to the NFL's top-rated defense on the opposite sideline -- and they shifted momentum nine minutes in. Tackle Joe Salave'a, who has had a painful foot injury much of the season, deflected Simms's first career playoff pass -- Salave'a swatted down at least three passes Saturday -- and disgruntled linebacker LaVar Arrington caught it, his first interception since 2001 and first big play since his last Pro Bowl season, 2003. Gruden and Simms contend Arrington fumbled the ball on the return, but the play could not be reviewed and Portis scored from six yards on the next play for a 7-0 lead.
On Tampa's next possession, Washington stripped tailback Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, a fellow Auburn product, came up with the ball, then was stripped himself around midfield. Taylor pounced on it -- "That's Sean Taylor, he's always lurking," Washington said -- and returned it 51 yards for the score, his second straight week with a defensive touchdown.
Antonio Brown recovered his own fumbled punt to prevent the Buccaneers from pulling closer, and the teams traded field goals before halftime. Even then, however, the Redskins were getting the breaks, and they left the field with their most meaningful game still to be played.
"We didn't agree with that two-point play they got before and things turned our way this time," Salave'a said. "We've just got to take this and run with it."