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Magical Ride Comes to an End

By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, January 6, 2008

SEATTLE

In every corner of the Washington Redskins' locker room on Saturday, the same moment was recalled. Finally, they had silenced the thunderous crowd of 68,297 at Qwest Field, the loudest football stadium in the NFL. In what seemed like a matter of heartbeats rather than minutes, they had scored twice on precise Todd Collins passes, first to Antwaan Randle El, then to Santana Moss, to turn a 13-0 deficit into a 14-13 Washington lead with 12 minutes 38 seconds to play. Then, in the kind of play that almost always transforms postseason games -- becoming part of one team's lore and the other team's shame -- the break of the day fell into the Redskins' lap.

On an innocent Washington kickoff, the football squirted between two Seattle Seahawks return men and rolled free, begging to be recovered by a Redskin. When the ball bounced straight up into Anthony Mix's arms at the Seahawks 14-yard line, thousands of Seattle fans had some variation of the same first thought: "What dumb luck for them, what a boneheaded play by us." But the second thought that followed a blink later was unique to this game. In a packed stadium in the state of Washington and throughout the city of Washington, the same name leaped into countless minds: "Sean Taylor."

As omens and premonitions go, this was off the charts, breathtaking, seminal for a football game. "We were so confident, [had] been playing so well, then after we go ahead and recover the fumble back, we're so sure we aren't going to be defeated," said middle linebacker London Fletcher. "We're thinking, 'We're going to Dallas. We know what we're going to do to them.' "

The slain Taylor's closest friend on the team, Clinton Portis, sat by his locker, barely speaking above a whisper. "We had a chance to go up on them even bigger than we already had," he said. "It felt like our season was about to continue."

The same Qwest Field that had felt like a hostile maelstrom suddenly went as silent as the eye of a hurricane. The Redskins had their moment, their chance to knock the Seahawks and their crowd through the ropes with one more punch.

But that blow never landed. The opportunity was wasted. The moment passed and, with it, the most precious commodity in this madhouse venue: momentum. Collins's pass to an open Chris Cooley at the 2 on a flag pattern was a bit low; the tight end couldn't quite make a diving catch on a ball he's snagged plenty of times before.

Then, to knock the wind out of the Redskins' filling sails and awaken the Seahawks once more, dependable Shaun Suisham pulled his 30-yard field goal attempt too far left -- over the left crossbar and maybe only three inches wide.

"They got the momentum after that and we couldn't ever get it back," said wide receiver Antwaan Randle El.

The details of the last minutes -- the remorseless record book will insist that Seattle won 35-14, by 21 points, the same as Taylor's number, the same as the margin of last week's win over Dallas -- can be relished and recalled in this state; but they will be a mere blur, something to forget as quickly as possible, in that other nearer Washington.

In the Redskins' hopes and fantasies, in the place where perhaps they preferred to delay their eventual acceptance of a teammate's death, this game should have led to another and another contest, perhaps even into a Super Bowl they could transform into a memorial for a friend. Instead, peace will have to be made with best efforts that fall short. "Coach Gibbs told us he was proud of everything we did, that it was a magical ride," Chris Samuels said.

Now, pride will be taken in four improbable makeshift victories by a team reduced to substitutes at a half-dozen positions and led by a quarterback who played with as much heart in this brutal game as he had with efficiency in the wins before it.

"Todd brought us back to a place where we could have won," Gibbs said after watching Collins get sacked or battered all day, yet complete 29 of 50 passes for 266 yards. "You couldn't ask much more for the whole five games. He's super smart and today he showed he was a tough guy. Hard to ask more. A couple got away, but he just kept fighting like the rest of our guys."

However, the last minutes of this game were a showcase for the gritty yet imperially poised Matt Hasselbeck and a bitter return to quarterback reality for Collins. With 6:06 to play, Hasselbeck hit D.J. Hackett behind the Redskins' secondary for a 20-yard touchdown to take the lead. The pattern was a double move which left cornerback Pierson Prioleau bitten and behind. Twice in the fourth quarter, safety LaRon Landry anticipated Hasselbeck's patterns and made vital interceptions. "Landry is aggressive. We put that [touchdown] play in [just] for him this week," Hasselbeck said. "He got me twice. I got him once."

The Redskins feel Prioleau had primary coverage, Landry merely support. After that, with Seattle back on top, the Redskins simply descended into the Qwest vortex again. Why is the place so loud? "I'm just a dumb old football coach, but the way they built this stadium -- straight up and real tight to the field and the overhang in the roof to keep the sound in -- it's very well done," said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense. "It's so loud that the offensive linemen can't ever hear the snap count. So that neutralizes the offense's advantage of getting off on the ball. In fact, since the offense doesn't want to peek in at the center, the defense actually gets a better jump."

That at-the-snap advantage reduced the Redskins' running game to rubble, especially as they failed on crucial third-and-one and fourth-and-one conversion attempts in the first half. "The noise bothered us a lot early," Gibbs said. "Then we went to our no-huddle and a silent snap count." More to the point, the Redskins abandoned their run game and turned their fate over entirely to Collins. At least in pass protection, his linemen's first step could be backward. Still, when he wasn't sacked, he was clobbered. "Todd fought his guts out," Gibbs said.

But, in this as in every other matter, the Redskins' sense of the appropriate did not hold sway. In fact, it was Collins who had the indignity of watching two fourth-quarter passes get run back for touchdowns.

On the first of those picks, the only interception that the Redskins' quarterback has thrown since 1997, he was not much at fault. His deep heave up the right sideline would usually have fallen incomplete in a leaping battle between Moss and Marcus Trufant. But, as Gibbs said, Moss looked up "and never found the ball" against the gray sky. Disoriented, Moss didn't know he was in the play. Trufant did and danced up the left sideline for a 28-14 lead with 5:38 left.

In their offseason nightmares, Hasselbeck will play the largest role after completing 20 of 32 passes for 229 yards. "I told our guys he would be the best NFC quarterback we'd see this season -- no disrespect to Tony Romo and Brett Favre," said cornerback Shawn Springs, an ex-Seahawk who played despite nagging leg injuries, but was a frequent victim of Hasselbeck's passes. "Our rush couldn't get to him and rattle him. Our defense relies on our corners being able to dominate[wide receivers]." This time, after a four-week run, they couldn't shut down those wideouts.

The final score will look decisive. And those in Qwest Field will rejoice until what hearing they have left will barely allow them to detect a Neil Young solo at full hurricane force. But the Redskins know how close this game was for one vital moment.

"I thought, 'Here we go,' " Reed Doughty said. "That's the ebb and flow of a football. You have to take advantage of it."

A tide, in the affairs of playoff football, once missed, is gone forever. But no defeat, especially for this Redskins team, diminishes what went before it.

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