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The 12th Man

By Mike Wise
Monday, December 24, 2007

MINNEAPOLIS Clinton Portis was high-stepping along the back of the end zone, galloping for glory, goading more than 62,000 people who never saw this coming, this 32-21 knockout of their vanquished Vikings.

Portis was doing his jig because his coach had challenged a crucial call and won moments earlier, because Joe Gibbs's game-management skills had the same serrated edge as his team Sunday night.

He stood firm, an I-know-what-I'm-doing look crossing his mug. Gibbs would never describe it as vindication, but there had to be something so sweetly satisfying about winning such a crucial replay challenge with 8 minutes 58 seconds left in the game.

A number of assistants noticed 12 Vikings on the field, and Gibbs was told plainly in his headset before he threw the flag. Minnesota had recovered a fumble, had its mojo working and wanted so badly to send the Redskins back down the road to second-half ruin they had come to know so well.

But those dunce-cap days seem so far away. The coach who admitted he didn't know the rules about freezing a kicker on back-to-back timeout calls three weeks ago against Buffalo brought all his smarts to bear against the Vikings. That call crushed Minnesota's momentum and, amazingly, sent Gibbs's team home for a date with Dallas on the last weekend of the regular season.

After further review, Redskins' ball. After further review, the Redskins are stunningly one victory from the postseason.

This one was a little surreal and, given the rout on the scoreboard, completely unexpected. Gibbs and his maligned staff, who kept getting their wires crossed at the end of games, have called so many right plays and timeouts en route to a defining turnabout. These players who had given back so many games in the second half, who kept bemoaning their need to "finish the job," delivered the signature performance of this increasingly unpredictable season.

"Coach, how do you explain this journey -- 5-7, four-game losing streak, obviously mourning [Sean Taylor] off the field?" he was asked afterward.

"It's hard to really put in words, I think," Gibbs said. "We had four brutal, real tough, last-second losses. And four in a row. You figure that would probably take the life out of most teams. And then to emotionally lose Sean the way we did. I think all of that for us . . . I don't know if you can put it in words. I think it's just been a real long journey. I'm so proud of our guys that they're able to bounce back and play as hard as they have over the last three weeks."

If Joe Gibbs tales are your bag, all of this could have only happened here at the Metrodome. Indeed, beyond a resurgent Redskins team, the Vikings had another intangible going against them: a legendary coach's past.

This is the building where Gibbs has not lost a game. It is the place Gibbs won his last Super Bowl and where he won his last game during his first tenure as coach of the Redskins.

The Metrodome is a place for memories, sweet little reminders of a team and a time that exist mostly in the mind of a 67-year-old man who has tried in vain to recapture that feeling for four years. These players did their best to take Gibbs back Sunday night.

In this maddening season of inconceivable late-game losses -- of Taylor's death first and foremost, of Jason Campbell's knee injury just two and a half weeks ago -- this domed facility was the site for that elusive good ending Gibbs so badly wanted.

Todd Collins, America's back-up quarterback for the past decade, won his third straight game with poise and purpose in the pocket. He checked-down to his backs when he had to, he went deep when he felt the urge and saw his man open. He just managed this game so perfectly.

This victory was also about Anthony Montgomery, who left the University of Minnesota as the flabby kid who got by on his size and strength in college until he got his comeuppance last year as a rookie. A year of being berated by his coaches and making a commitment to diet and fitness -- really to himself -- the young defensive tackle manhandled some of the game's most bullish linemen.

It was made possible by Kedric Golston, another youngster who weathered his own verbal abuse, listened and learned. He opened the scoring when he dropped Vikings fullback Tony Richardson for a safety.

Remember, the Vikings' offensive line opened more holes for its backs than any team this season.

"When all you hear is about another team's running backs all week it bothers you," Ladell Betts said in a jubilant locker room. "It bothered me and Clinton [Portis]."

Mostly, this victory belonged to Gibbs and his ability to lead a group of reinvigorated players onto the field in a game they had to win to stay in the hunt for the playoffs. He was asked if any of his other teams who jelled late reminded him of this one.

"The Redskins, you know, we pride ourselves on playing good late," Gibbs said. "But I think, with this team with what it's gone through emotionally, I haven't ever experienced anything like this really."

The stars began aligning late Sunday afternoon, after the Saints had fallen to the Eagles. The Redskins could move that dreaded word "permutation" from their vocabulary. If they won out -- if they beat the Vikings and the Cowboys next week -- they would be in the playoffs.

No backdoors. No relying on another team's misfortune. It was theirs to lose. After the Bears stunningly cleaned Green Bay's clock, 35-7, the road got easier. Dallas had wrapped up home-field advantage in the NFC with the Packers' loss, meaning Tony Romo and the first-teamers would play hardly a down at FedEx Field next week. The players Gibbs led onto the field Sunday had their Super Bowl in front of them.

And they seized the game like no other in recent Redskins memory, rattling the Vikings' monsters up front early with their run-stoppers and then discombobulating their one-dimensional run defense with a bevy of creative passing plays, including a halfback option pass from Portis to Antwaan Randle-El that brought the halftime score to 22-0.

The loud, hearty souls before the game, who had braved a 10-degree, snowy night to see Adrian Peterson stutter-step into the end zone, went quiet.

When LaRon Landry wrapped up Peterson well short of the first-down marker on a 4th-and-1 try, three minutes into the second half, a new energy could be seen and felt along the Redskins sideline -- a contagion that kept spreading. The players and coaches whooped and hollered. They celebrated the continuance of this crazed season, the season of tumult, tragedy and, now, triumph. Here, in downtown Minneapolis, where Gibbs led another team to victory.

"I was walking down the runway there, and I said I remember the Super Bowl from walking down there," Gibbs said. "This town, really, I really got great memories being here. I'm not trying to say anything about football or we won the game or anything. But just for me personally. There have been some of the rare moments for me in sports that I experienced here in this building."

A the Minnesota fans shuffled out into the snow going on midnight, it was enough to take an old coach back in time, enough to make Joe Gibbs feel young and unbeatable again.

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