By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 18, 2006
NEW ORLEANS, Dec. 17 -- On the face of it, none of this would have seemed to matter much. The Washington Redskins had long since given up any notion of playing for the platinum-and-diamond reward of the postseason. And the New Orleans Saints, even as they lost to the Redskins, still wound up with the day's prize.
But Sunday's surprising 16-10 victory over the offense-rich, multitalented Saints was far from hollow for the Redskins. For the first time this season, Washington's maligned defense faced a team at the height of its offensive power and heading for the postseason, and was dominant.
It was both a 60-minute flashback to the successes of the last two seasons for assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams and also an encouraging continuance of a month of inspired defensive play by players angry at the idea of being considered losers.
While the Redskins' defense was making a statement, Atlanta's 38-28 loss to Dallas on Saturday combined with Pittsburgh's 37-3 demolition of Carolina on Sunday had given the Saints (9-5) the NFC South division title, even though the Redskins had knocked them on their backs.
"That's fine. I give them their credit. They earned it, but they didn't get in at our expense," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "They can feel good. They can wear their hats and celebrate, but they can't do it the way they wanted to."
But that did not diminish yesterday's win. Quarterback Jason Campbell returned for the first time to the Superdome -- where he won the 2005 Sugar Bowl for Auburn -- and won his second NFL game. Ladell Betts rushed for 119 yards, his fourth consecutive 100-yard game. The Redskins (5-9) rushed for 161 yards as a team.
Perhaps most importantly, however, even if only for a week, the win provided a measure of vindication for a defense that once represented the team's standard. The Saints, having destroyed the Dallas Cowboys a week earlier, watched an energized defense confuse quarterback Drew Brees, holding him to just 207 yards passing.
"I hate losing. When we lose, I don't sleep at all," Cornelius Griffin said. "My wife sleeps and I'm up all night, playing with my daughter. Guys take pride in what they do. People can say, 'It's over.' Screw that. We'll fight you to the end."
For the first time this season, the Saints were held to less than 300 yards of offense. Rookie Reggie Bush rushed seven times for 14 yards and caught five passes for 19 yards.
The moment that best crystallized the Redskins' defensive effort was on the Saints' final drive, when New Orleans appeared poised to snatch a victory from the Redskins. On third and six at the Redskins 15 with 1 minute 1 second remaining, Brees hit Bush on a screen pass to the right. Bush appeared to have room -- moments earlier he had taken a screen 15 yards -- but found himself cornered by Griffin and defensive end Andre Carter, who had both sprinted from the far side of the field to knock Bush back for a loss of a yard.
"It's always satisfying, no matter when it happens," Williams said. "We're professionals. It was one of the things we talked about in the locker room. Was I shocked that we gave this kind of effort? None of us were. This is what we do. Everybody in the locker room talked about it."
Individually, the players and coaches spent the week leading up to this game wrestling with various anxieties. Carter finished with eight tackles, a sack, a quarterback hurry and two tackles for losses.
Cornerback Carlos Rogers, the 2005 top-10 draft pick who went 13 games unable to snare an interception despite having a chance to pick off at least a half-dozen passes, played his strongest game of the year, intercepting a Brees pass in the fourth quarter that led to a field goal, the first Redskins points off a turnover since Oct. 1.
And with 53 seconds left, after the Redskins had dominated a playoff team for 60 minutes but still were just a short, red-zone pass from a morbid defeat, it was Rogers who knocked a pass by Brees away from wide receiver Terrance Copper in the end zone on fourth and 7 from the 16-yard line.
"He means a lot to us," Gibbs said of Rogers. "We need him to play like that. With everything that has been happening here, I think now he's starting to get into a groove and be one of those corners that you put out there and leave out there. Hopefully, it is a confidence thing for him. It should be."
Cornerback Shawn Springs has wondered about his future with the Redskins, playing in only eight games this season because of injuries and figuring to cost the team $7.35 million against the salary cap next season. But Sunday he was dominant, in run support and in coverage. Springs's biggest play of the game came with 1:20 remaining when Brees threw for the potential game-winner, a fade route to rookie standout Marques Colston. Colston appeared to be open for an instant, between Springs and Sean Taylor, but Springs closed the space and deflected the ball out of bounds.
For weeks, the coaches have been as anxious as the players. Williams has met with Gibbs and even owner Daniel Snyder, conveying to them his position that there is nothing irreparable about the Redskins' defensive issues, even as his big-play players have not made many big plays.
But on Sunday, Rogers stood tall. With the Saints trailing 13-10 with 11:10 left and facing third and 19 from their 6-yard line, Brees hit Colston over the middle for a 24-yard gain. Hungry for a knockout, Brees lined up in a no-huddle formation, dropped back and threw for wide receiver Devery Henderson. The ball was badly underthrown, and Rogers caught the ball, bobbled it and nearly dropped it twice.
"I teased Carlos about the fact that he wants three interceptions for that one, because it took him three times to catch it," Williams said. "He almost dropped it twice."
But Rogers pulled in the interception. And the Redskins pulled in an unlikely victory.