By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 31, 2007
At the end of the Washington Redskins' defensive meeting at the team hotel Saturday night, assistant head coach Gregg Williams splashed a picture across the video screen before sending the players back to their rooms. It was a photo of Sean Taylor, which the safety autographed for a fan and added the inscription: "We want Dallas."
As the Redskins faced the rival Dallas Cowboys yesterday at FedEx Field, with a once-improbable playoff berth on the line, players and coaches said Taylor was their inspiration, his shooting death five weeks ago forging a bond that has helped the club win four consecutive games and secure the final wild-card spot. They knew a win over Dallas would clinch the playoffs, and they prevailed, 27-6, before a record crowd of 90,910 to earn a spot in a playoff game in Seattle on Saturday, with a trip to Dallas after that should they defeat the Seahawks.
"We know Sean's been with us," Williams said, while pulling a coin with Taylor's likeness out of his pocket, a constant companion since the player's death. "We talked about it again at our team meeting. And we know he's always going to be with us. I carry him with me all the time."
Taylor's two closest friends on the club -- college teammates Santana Moss (eight catches for 115 yards and a touchdown) and Clinton Portis (131 combined yards and two touchdowns) -- carried the offense along with quarterback Todd Collins, a sudden star since replacing injured starter Jason Campbell.
Collins, who went 10 seasons between starts, finished with a 104.8 passer rating, completing 22 of 31 passes for 244 yards. He has won three consecutive starts for the first time in his career.
And the defense, the players who worked closest to Taylor, limited Dallas (13-3) to one rushing yard, and just 63 total yards in the first half, as the Redskins (9-7) grabbed an early lead.
Coach Joe Gibbs, whose job security was the subject of much conjecture four weeks ago after his gaffe of calling consecutive timeouts aided Buffalo's game-winning field goal, has rallied too. He called that Buffalo loss "the worst moment in my career," but has the team back in the postseason for the second time in three years, a run of success unseen since he first retired in 1992.
"To think four weeks ago where we were and where we are tonight," Gibbs said, "it is a great experience and a great ride."
The Cowboys, playing without several injured starters and with no tangible motivation yesterday having the NFC's top seed already secured, were dominated on all fronts, with only Washington's proclivity for first-half turnovers keeping them in the game. Pro Bowl quarterback Tony Romo was held to a paltry 34.9 rating before he and others made way for substitutes in the second half.
"If anything good comes of this," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said, "it's the ability to look in the mirror and reevaluate ourselves."
Washington picked up chunks of 10 yards or more throughout the game -- 15 of such plays in all -- with tight end Chris Cooley getting the better of safety Roy Williams twice on the first scoring drive for 27 yards. Then Portis surged 23 yards for a score. Teammates Mike Sellers, Chris Samuels and Pete Kendall opened a huge hole and Portis ran over Williams and cornerback Anthony Henry before sprinting in.
For the third consecutive game, rookie free agent tackle Stephon Heyer played well against an elite pass rusher, this time Greg Ellis.
Collins, unusually accurate in third-and-long situations, found Moss for a 21-yard gain on third and 10 in the second quarter, setting up Shaun Suisham's 46-yard field goal. Dallas had an opportunity to swing momentum a few minutes later, when Collins was sacked and fumbled. The Cowboys took over at the Washington 18 but could not advance the ball, settling for a field goal instead.
Collins found Moss for another big gain on third and 10 as the half was coming to a close, getting Suisham in range for a 21-yard field goal, and the Redskins went to the half leading 13-3.
The Redskins had 14 first downs in the half, to just four for Dallas, held the ball for 19 minutes and outgained the Cowboys, 218-63, but the margin on the scoreboard was still close.
Washington went ahead 20-3 on its first possession of the third quarter. Again, the Redskins thrived on third down -- 9 for 15 in the game -- with Collins picking up 15 yards (to late-emerging Reche Caldwell) on third and seven and then 14 yards to Antwaan Randle El on third and four. Portis then scored from a yard out, and in the fourth quarter Moss completed the victory with a 42-yard touchdown catch, befuddling reserve corner Jacques Reeves with a stop-and-go move.
"Clinton's in peak form," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense. "Him and Santana Moss, they've kind of taken over. Those are the big play guys that we need, and they're making plays for us."
Defensively, the Redskins held an opponent to one touchdown or less for the fifth time in six games, and Dallas set a franchise low for rushing yards. Reserves continue to play well in starting roles -- veteran linebacker Randall Godfrey anchored the run game and second-year safety Reed Doughty (starting in Taylor's absence) broke up a likely touchdown pass in the end zone -- and a unit that ranked 31st a year ago is thriving.
"We're playing really strong," Williams said. "We're playing really focused. I like how we're playing."
Williams said he still sometimes gets emotional thinking about Taylor, and after this game several players noticed the fact that a late Dallas field goal made the final margin 21 points -- the number Taylor wore.
"Winning by 21, that's not a coincidence," said end Phillip Daniels, whose wife found the copy of the photo Williams used on a Web site, then printed. "There's something going on here that's bigger than us. This is all for Sean."