By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 15, 2006
SEATTLE, Jan. 14 -- The rain was pelting them, the crowd was jeering them and their offense was failing them, yet the Washington Redskins seemed poised for another implausible victory. They were facing the NFC's best team, which was coming off two weeks of rest in a stadium in which it had not lost all season. But by the fourth quarter Qwest Field fans had become tense, while the Redskins fought to keep a six-game winning streak alive.
A season filled with gripping endings, wild comebacks and remarkable plays ended in that same fashion Saturday, as the Redskins shook off three quarters of offensive lethargy and rallied to give the top-seeded Seattle Seahawks a scare before falling, 20-10, in a second-round playoff game. No one could have anticipated the game's twists -- just as few expected a team that once was 5-6 would reel off six straight victories -- but eventually Washington's guts, guile, defense and special teams were undone by an offense that simply could not keep pace when the Seahawks hit their stride in the second half.
Coach Joe Gibbs's second season back from retirement will be remembered for this stirring reversal, riding a month-and-a-half of wins while wearing white jerseys and pants. Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls in his first stint, led the team to an 11-7 record after a 6-10 finish last season; Washington had not reached the playoffs since January 2000, and won its first road playoff game since the 1992 season last week in Tampa. Through it all, Gibbs praised the heart, resiliency and determination of his players, and after their defeat Saturday he delivered that message again as they gathered in the locker room for the final time this season.
"I told them today that I couldn't be prouder of them," Gibbs said. "I felt how hard they were fighting today, too, and that was a tough assignment there. . . . Generally, for us, I feel like our football team has a lot to it, and a lot of character."
Despite all the factors working against them, this game was there for the taking.
The Seahawks had not won a postseason game since 1984 and will host either Chicago or Carolina in the NFC championship game next Sunday. They lost tailback Shaun Alexander, the NFL's most valuable player, to a first-quarter concussion, and gave Washington a 3-0 lead on a muffed fumble, and were living up to their reputation as a playoff flop in the first half. But Gibbs's offense could not capitalize on any of that -- or a 3-1 turnover advantage -- and the team could not recover from a 7-3 halftime deficit. The attack sputtered for the third straight week -- Washington set a franchise postseason low with 120 total yards in Tampa Bay, fewest for any playoff winner in NFL history -- after making strides for much of the year and finishing second-worst overall in 2004. The offense scored just two touchdowns in two playoff games, and one came after the defense handed it the ball at the 6-yard line last week in Tampa.
"That's my responsibility," Gibbs said of the offense, "and obviously we wanted to be much more productive than we were in the playoffs. That'll be one of the things we look hard at."
"We are frustrated right now," said quarterback Mark Brunell, who struggled until the late going Saturday. "I am sick that we lost the game, particularly with the numbers that we have -- or have not -- had these last two games."
From the start of the second half in Tampa through the end of the first half Saturday, the Redskins ran 57 offensive plays for only 91 yards. Tailback Clinton Portis was held to 41 yards Saturday. "They knew we wanted to run the ball," center Casey Rabach said, "and they were trying to shut it down".
Brunell was 7 for 15 for 38 yards in the first half, and Washington did not convert a first down until nearly 18 minutes into the game (5 for 19 on third down overall). Their first five drives began at the 8, 15, 12, 11 and 15, and Washington went three-and-out each time. The Redskins did not get past their 25 until a fumbled punt set up John Hall's 25-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
"We just had a tough time of it in the first half," Gibbs said.
Seattle was not much better at the time. The teams combined for nine straight three-and-outs, and Alexander, who set the all-time mark with 28 touchdowns this season, fumbled to end a promising first drive, then suffered a concussion later in the first quarter and was never a factor. "It stunned us just a little bit," Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren said of the injury. "Then we got back on track."
The Seahawks marched 74 yards on 12 plays late in the half, with wide receiver Darrell Jackson (nine catches for 143 yards) catching two passes and Maurice Morris, Alexander's understudy, beginning to find cracks in the defense. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck scrambled for key yards, then hit Jackson for a 29-yard touchdown with safety Ryan Clark covering.
Seattle moved 81 yards for another touchdown on its first possession of the second half, largely because of the precision of their short-yardage West Coast offense, then receiver Joe Jurevicius got behind Clark and rookie cornerback Carlos Rogers on third down for a 31-yard reception. Hasselbeck put Seattle ahead, 14-3, by slipping into the end zone from six yards out on third down, with former Seahawk Shawn Springs diving in vain at his heels. A 33-yard field goal made it 17-3 with 14 minutes left -- a seemingly insurmountable lead until the Redskins made a charge.
H-back Chris Cooley took a short pass 52 yards over the middle, and on third-and-six from the 20, Brunell's pass wobbled into the end zone, bounced off the hands of Seahawks corner Andre Dyson and hung in the air for receiver Santana Moss. Moss snatched the ball, and suddenly the Redskins were a touchdown from tying the game with 12 minutes to play. Josh Scobey fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Hall recovered at the Seattle 40, and the Seahawks were reeling.
"When we got that fumble, I was sure we were going to get it tied up," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "But it didn't happen. We need to find a way next time to make that happen."
Washington reached the 18, and faced yet another critical third down, but this time Brunell overthrew Moss. Hall lined up from 36 yards out but pulled his kick wide left, and the deficit remained seven with 8 minutes 1 second left. But just as the Seahawks' playoff past seemed to be haunting the city once more, fullback Mack Strong broke wide right on third-and-six, with the defense keying on an inside play, and churned 32 yards for the longest run of his career. Kicker Josh Brown connected from 31 yards with less than three minutes left, and turned the Redskins' thoughts toward what could have been, and what might be next season.
"I think we left some things on the table and those are the ones that you can't get back," defensive tackle Joe Salave'a said. "When you get this close you get selfish. As you reflect, I thought we did some good things, but I'm not satisfied."