By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 8, 2006
TAMPA, Jan. 7 -- The Washington Redskins were unable to run the ball or pass it. They fumbled three times, and recovered each one. They lost one of their top defensive linemen with a fractured arm in the first quarter, and their best young defender was thrown out of the game late in the third quarter for spitting at an opponent.
But in a manner that has come to characterize their charmed life over the past month and a half, the Redskins advanced to the second round of the National Football League playoffs Saturday, defeating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 17-10, through a combination of a stalwart defense and just enough good fortune.
Washington, which has won six games in a row, will play the No. 1 seed in the National Football Conference, the 13-3 Seattle Seahawks, next Saturday in Seattle. The Redskins beat the Seahawks, 20-17, in overtime at FedEx Field on Oct. 2.
"There were two really good defenses out there," Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said. "Our defense just played outstanding. I'm really proud of them. I thought we were in real trouble there at the end. But our defense rose up again."
Redskins defenders had to survive several fourth-quarter scares, not the least of which was a controversial incomplete pass in the end zone to Tampa Bay wide receiver Edell Shepherd with 2 minutes 55 seconds remaining. It appeared at first that Shepherd, with rookie cornerback Carlos Rogers trying to defend, had held on to the ball for a 35-yard touchdown. But the ball came loose at the last instant as Shepherd hit the ground and the pass was immediately ruled incomplete. The Buccaneers challenged the call, but a replay review by referee Mike Carey confirmed the ruling on the field.
"I thought [Shepherd] had both hands on the ball in the end zone," Tampa Bay Coach Jon Gruden said. "I got several different explanations [from game officials]. The bottom line is it was all for naught. . . . I agree with the final verdict."
The end zone call was just one of many plays that went the Redskins' way in a game in which Washington had just 120 yards total offense, the fewest by the winning team in a playoff game. The Redskins totaled just 41 yards throwing the ball.
The victory was not assured until Redskins linebacker Marcus Washington intercepted the last of several tipped passes thrown by Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms, touching off a spirited celebration on the Washington sideline with 57 seconds remaining.
"Somebody made a tip," Washington said. "I was in the right place at the right time. I was just thinking, 'Don't drop it and try to make something happen.' "
Ironically, the Redskins had lost their regular season game to the Buccaneers here on Nov. 13 on another disputed officiating call. Tampa Bay fullback Mike Alstott had scored that day on a two-point conversion run with 58 seconds remaining for a 36-35 victory. The Redskins challenged the play, claiming Alstott was down before he got into the end zone, but the call was upheld by replay review.
Three hours before kickoff at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday, more than 500 exuberant Washington fans in town for the game had already turned nearby Al Lopez Park in the west parking lot into what many were calling "FedEx Field South." Singing their team's fight song and waving team banners from the curb off Martin Luther King Boulevard, they descended on the city to watch Washington's first playoff game, and playoff victory, since the 1999-2000 season, when the Buccaneers eliminated the Redskins in the second round.
In the chill of a rare Florida cold snap, their hearts were immediately warmed by what they saw. In the game's first 11 minutes, the Redskins' defense set up one touchdown with a LaVar Arrington interception and scored another on safety Sean Taylor's 51-yard return of a fumble for a 14-0 lead. The Buccaneers could never overcome those two crucial turnovers, and trailed 17-3 at halftime.
The Redskins' sixth straight victory of this suddenly sublime season stunned the 65,000 fans in attendance and ended Tampa Bay's own late-season surge in which they won four of their last five to clinch the NFC South Division title.
For Gibbs, once an assistant for the Buccaneers in the late 1970s, the victory gave the Hall of Fame Redskins head coach a career 17-5 record in the playoffs. It confirmed once again his decision to come out of retirement from football in 2004 after an 11-year hiatus. It also wiped out the bitter taste left by the teams' meeting in the regular season.
The defensive heroics came at the end of a week when the Redskins had rewarded Gregg Williams, the assistant head coach-defense, with a three-year, $8 million contract extension, the better to keep him at Redskins Park, the team's training facility in Ashburn, and away from any of the eight head coaching vacancies in the league.
The Redskins also overcame two critical defensive injuries, and the ejection of Taylor from the game. The referees said Taylor spat in the face of Tampa running back Michael Pittman late in the third quarter. Taylor, the second-year safety from the University of Miami, faces a possible sanction by the NFL. One league source said he thinks it was likely that Taylor will be fined but not suspended. Even if he is suspended, the source said, he could appeal the penalty and the appeal process probably would push the suspension into next season.
Washington started the game short-handed on defense, placing cornerback Shawn Springs on the inactive list with a pulled groin. Then they lost defensive end Renaldo Wynn late in the first quarter with a fractured forearm.
But the defense continued its strong play, especially in the fourth quarter, when they turned back the Buccaneers once on third and one and once on fourth and one midway through the period. The defense frequently frustrated Simms, especially in the second half, and Tampa running back Carnell Williams, voted the NFL's offensive rookie of the year.
Simms's first pass of the afternoon was tipped at the line of scrimmage by defensive tackle Joe Salave'a, allowing Arrington to easily intercept the ball and return it 21 yards to the Tampa Bay 6-yard line. From there, running back Clinton Portis scored on the next play for a quick 7-0 lead.
Williams was victimized on the Buccaneers' next series when Washington, the Redskins' linebacker, stripped the ball from the Tampa Bay runner's grasp, recovered it momentarily, then fumbled himself. But Taylor scooped up the loose ball and ran untouched 51 yards into the end zone for a touchdown for a 14-0 lead with 4:15 remaining in the first quarter.
Flights from Washington on Friday and early Saturday morning were filled with Redskins fans, many singing "Hail to the Redskins" when wheels touched down at Tampa International Airport. A large contingent of Washington fans now living in the Tampa area and other Florida regions also was scattered throughout the stadium.
Bill Miller, retired from the Air Force and the Prince George's County school system, made the 90-minute drive from Port Charlotte, Fla., to see the Redskins play for the first time since he was a regular at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. He got his seats off Ticketmaster.
His wife, Gloria, gushed: "I love Joe Gibbs. He's my hero."
Ivan Vargas, a government worker from Fairfax, and his son, Christopher, flew down Friday night to nearby Fort Myers. "We're die-hard Redskins fans," Christopher said, adding that their tickets came from a second cousin who knew someone high up in the Redskins organization.
Jesse Tomaino, the executive chef at Colonel Brooks' Tavern in Northeast Washington, said he came down with 10 friends, all of them having a wonderful time in Al Lopez Park.
"I got my seats [online], and it was cheaper for this game than the last two at FedEx," he said. "I was here six years ago, too, and we owe these guys immeasurably for what they did to us the last time. Hey, I've already bought my tickets for Seattle."
Staff writer Mark Maske in Foxborough, Mass., contributed to this report.