By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 25, 2006
ST. LOUIS, Dec. 24 -- Only after tailback Steven Jackson burst 21 yards through the heart of the defense, outraced safety Sean Taylor and crossed the goal line midway through overtime was there any certainty on this afternoon. Up until that point, almost anything seemed possible, but in the end, despite all of the plot twists, the result was utterly predictable: The Washington Redskins again could not win consecutive games.
The Redskins led for much of the afternoon -- including by 14 points in the second half -- and had countless chances to finish off the St. Louis Rams on Sunday but never quite could, with Jackson capping his massive afternoon with the final play in the Rams' 37-31 overtime victory at Edward Jones Dome. Jackson topped 100 yards rushing and receiving (252 total yards), and quarterback Marc Bulger threw for 388 yards and four touchdowns, while Washington's defense conceded 579 net yards, the most ever given up since coach Gregg Williams took over the unit in 2004.
So instead of winning two in a row for the first time since Oct. 1 or carrying some momentum into the final week of the season, Washington will be clinging to much bleaker benchmarks in the season finale against New York next week. The Redskins (5-10) will need a win to keep Coach Joe Gibbs from his worst season ever; he went 6-10 in 2004, his first season back from a 12-year retirement, and is 21-26 overall. They need a win not to duplicate the 5-11 mark compiled in 2003, when Coach Steve Spurrier exited. They will carry a 3-8 record against NFC foes into the game and were already ensured of a last-place finish in the NFC East.
"We've had a tough year all the way across the board," Gibbs said.
Not even the Redskins' revived running game has been enough to compensate for the awful defense, which lost top linebacker Marcus Washington for the season last week and then lost corner Shawn Springs and starting end Phillip Daniels during the game. Tailback Ladell Betts topped 100 yards for the fifth straight regular season game (129 yards) -- tying a franchise record -- but the team is 2-3 in that span. Betts scored two touchdowns, and was on the verge of putting the game away with two minutes left, rumbling 25 yards into field-goal range, then getting stripped of the ball by safety Oshiomogho Atogwe; the Rams recovered and drove to attempt a game-winning kick, but Jeff Wilkins missed from 41 yards sending it to overtime.
"Good play on his part, bad play on my part," said Betts, who topped 1,000 yards for the first time in his five-year career (1,062). "It's definitely a tough loss for me. You never want to look at one play and say that's the reason you lost the game, but it's tough in that situation. We had a chance to take the lead and put the game away."
The game was filled with such turns.
The Redskins scored a touchdown on their opening drive for just the third time this season, with Betts and T.J. Duckett combining for 41 yards on the drive, and Duckett scoring his first touchdown as a Redskin. The Rams (7-8) were lifeless and drawing boos from the sparse crowd, and faced a third and 16 early in the second quarter, but a 43-yard pass-interference call on reserve Ade Jimoh put them in scoring range. Isaac Bruce (nine catches for 148 yards) beat Taylor for a 10-yard touchdown grab.
St. Louis followed that 85-yard drive with an 83-yard march. Bulger found Bruce over the middle for 43 yards -- opponents have carved this part of the field weekly ("We have to take a real hard look at that in the offseason, Williams said) -- and Taylor blew a chance to tackle tight end Dominique Byrd on the next play, allowing a 27-yard touchdown catch for a 14-7 score.
Washington's defense was stalling -- St. Louis outgained them 168-3 in the span of four possessions (two per team) -- then safety Vernon Fox blocked a punt, and the Redskins took over at the St. Louis 8. Betts scored two plays later from the 6. Campbell snapped an 0-for-8 rut on the next drive, hitting tight end Chris Cooley twice including a nine-yard score, with Cooley shaking off linebacker Will Witherspoon for a 21-14 halftime lead.
"We played our hearts out," Cooley said. "We didn't expect anything less than winning the game."
The Redskins had scored three offensive touchdowns in a game for the first time since Oct. 1 -- a span of 10 games -- and three touchdowns in the first half for the first time all season. They followed that with a 72-yard drive to open the second half -- Campbell scrambled for a first down on third and six and was 3 for 3 on the drive in his up-and-down day -- with Betts scoring again for a 28-14 lead. Even that was not enough.
"We could have found a way to win this, in all likelihood," Gibbs said.
On the ensuing drive, the Rams faced third and four from the 36; Jackson caught a short pass and shredded the defense, splitting Fox and linebacker Warrick Holdman and meandering 64 yards for a touchdown. Jackson ran four times for 37 yards on the next drive and former Redskins tailback Stephen Davis caught a shovel pass and went in from 10 yards for a score, tying the game at 28 late in the third quarter.
"They were finding holes in our zone [coverages]," cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "And their running backs were hitting holes real good, too."
The Rams regained the lead with about eight minutes to play. Bulger (134.5 passer rating) sprinted 29 yards into an utterly vacant backfield on third and eight, another anomaly in this quirky game ("He hadn't scrambled all year," Williams said). Bruce caught a 15-yard pass on third and five, but two false-start penalties in the red zone forced a field goal, giving the Rams a 31-28 lead.
The improbable day was far from over, however. Jackson fumbled -- the Redskins have just 12 takeaways, threatening the all-time NFL low of 15 -- and kicker Shaun Suisham, perfect in his Redskins career, capped that drive with a 52-yard field goal to tie the game with less than four minutes to play. Betts's fumble dashed a chance to close out the Rams in regulation, Wilkins missed from within his range in the dying seconds, and overtime was required to settle the affair.
"If we want to be a good team," tackle Jon Jansen said, "then we're going to have to learn from this."