By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 2, 2006
Perhaps the play that left the Washington Redskins dizzy with elation symbolized a team that seems to prefer living hard on the margin only to prosper in the end. The final pass of the game, wafted on the third play of overtime, was a hair from being intercepted, first by one defender, then by a second.
Yet quarterback Mark Brunell's 20-yard throw slid through the combine of disaster and into the hands of wide receiver Santana Moss, who emerged from between the two Jacksonville defenders with the football and nothing in front of him except a clear route to an improbable victory.
Moss raced into the end zone, completing a 68-yard play and capping an energizing 36-30 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars yesterday at FedEx Field that evened the Redskins' record at 2-2 and for the first time this year returned to them the type of swagger and confidence that has made them a fashionable choice to play well past New Year's Day.
"If there has ever been better playmaker in the NFL, I don't know who it is," a breathless Coach Joe Gibbs said of Moss, who scored three touchdowns. "Every time he gets the ball in his hands, it's a threat to have him go with it."
After a mighty struggle through the preseason, two losses to start the season and the doubt of last week's impressive victory over a poor Houston team, the Redskins have something more to believe in than lofty potential. The Jaguars were considered to have one of the best defenses in football -- perhaps the best run defense in the NFL -- but the Redskins rushed 40 times for 152 yards, and a week after totaling 495 yards of offense produced 481 against an elite team. Clinton Portis, motivated by what he considered the arrogance of the Jacksonville defensive unit, rushed for a season-high 112 yards on 27 carries.
Brunell, coming off of a record-setting performance a week ago that seemed somewhat tainted by the level of the competition -- he was not even named NFC player of the week despite setting an NFL record for consecutive completions in a game -- threw for 329 yards. Four players -- Chris Cooley, Brandon Lloyd, Portis and Moss -- all caught at least one pass for more than 20 yards.
Even defensively, where praise was checkered with the reality that the Jaguars produced more than enough offense to win the game, the Redskins began to show signs of dominance. Jacksonville rushed for 33 yards, an average of 2.2 yards per carry. And some big-name players, who have done little outside of struggle this season, had their first good moments as Redskins. Both safety Adam Archuleta and defensive end Andre Carter -- the two big free agent signings last offseason -- recorded sacks. The Redskins had four in the game, plus an interception.
The Redskins beat the Jaguars spectacularly; Moss jackknifed past cornerback Brian Williams and safety Deon Grant down the left sideline for the electric winning score. It was the second of two game-breaking touchdown receptions for Moss -- the first was a 55-yard romp in a wild first quarter that quickly diminished whatever degree of invincibility the highly ranked Jaguars defense believed it possessed. Moss continues to establish himself as one of the most dangerous open-field receivers in all of football.
"When the ball gets in his hands, nothing surprises me. Who else in football can make plays like that?" fullback Mike Sellers asked rhetorically. "Nobody. The man is just phenomenal."
But the foundation of yesterday's win was rooted deep inside the fight, whether it be on the offensive line, where right guard Randy Thomas, left tackle Chris Samuels and right tackle Jon Jansen punished the vaunted Jacksonville front four with the kind of purpose reserved for a team that felt slighted. In the narrow, dirty spaces of the game, away from what can be seen on television, Redskins players taunted the Jaguars. Sellers, the hard-nosed 6-foot-3, 278-pound fullback, waged a verbal and physical war with the Jaguars' linebackers, swearing at them after slamming into them. On a drive that ended when Portis banged home a one-yard third-quarter touchdown that gave the Redskins a 20-17 lead, Sellers rushed through as a lead blocker and knocked the helmet off of middle linebacker Mike Peterson.
"People are starting to believe on this team that we can fight anybody," Sellers said. "We knew what we had to do and we went out and did it. We're not punks, we're not going to be treated like punks, and we're not going to let anyone take advantage of us."
Samuels recalled telling his teammates as they prepared to take the field for each series to make each hit on a Jaguars player a little harder than the last. "Hit them, again and again," Samuels said he told his team. "They don't want any part of us."
It was there, up close and bloody -- and not through the more visible, and exciting plays that sent the 89,450 diehards into euphoria -- where the Redskins say this game was won and their identity forged.
"When you can run for 150 yards against the top-ranked team like that, you know you're doing something," reserve running back Ladell Betts said.
On the sideline, Gibbs often was seen gnawing on the top of his knuckles, at times appearing to engulf his entire hand. Before the game, he placed an enormous weight on his shoulders by telling owner Daniel Snyder how much rested on this game.
The Redskins may still not know if they can stop good teams -- the Jaguars could not run the football on a revived Redskins' run defense, yet still scored 30 points, racking up huge passing plays as Washington's defense was repeatedly carved by Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich -- but they do know they can beat them. In their time of immediate desperation, where Gibbs has told the public of the enormous pressure he feels to succeed this season, they overcame, they said, simply by fighting.
The fight was barely enough. The Redskins' defensive front four provided pressure for the first time this season, but its secondary is still suspect. Leftwich threw for 289 yards and within the span of minutes -- aided by a crushing fourth-quarter fumble by Lloyd -- turned a 27-17 fourth-quarter deficit with 12:24 remaining into a tie with 6:40 remaining.
"This is a team of fighters," Betts said. "By the end, there was no strategy, no this, no that, just fighting. We've got a team of fighters, that's what I know."