Close Encounter of the 5th Kind

After an unsettling loss in their previous game, the Redskins rebound, holding on for a 14-11 victory over the Cleveland Browns at FedEx Field.
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 2008

Once again they watched helplessly as another game had come to this: another opponent's kicker sending a field goal attempt wobbling toward the goal posts, a victory hanging in the air. And like so many times before, dread filled the Washington Redskins' sideline early yesterday evening.

Clinton Portis, the star running back who had torn through the Cleveland Browns for 175 yards, stood alone on the 26-yard line, his stomach in knots after a late-game fumble gave the Browns life in a game they had once been certain to lose.

Jim Zorn, the Washington coach, was devising in his mind the plays he was going to run when overtime started a few minutes later.

Danny Smith, the Redskins' special teams coach, saw the ball rise in the air and knew Cleveland place kicker Phil Dawson had kicked it long enough to spoil the Redskins' afternoon.

And then the ball started to sway in the chilly evening air, veering to the right, away from the goal posts, until the officials waved their arms. No good. The Redskins' 14-11 win over Cleveland was safe. The Redskins threw their hands in the air, shouted to the skies and danced on the sideline. Portis clenched his fist and slowly pumped his arm in joy.

"I don't know what the best relief is in your life but it was close," he said.

Which could pretty much describe most of the Redskins' games this year, even as they have marched to a 5-2 start and second place in the National Football Conference's East Division. Every victory has been decided by a touchdown or less, thus bringing its own special last-minute drama. When someone pointed this out to Zorn at his postgame news conference, the coach chuckled and with a wild-eyed look said: "How do you feel about that, man? They're unbelievable."

Zorn undoubtedly feels pretty good about such endings, given he is 5-2 in his first season as a head coach and his team has four teams with two or fewer wins lingering on the schedule. Figuring 10 wins is enough to make the playoffs (and it almost always is in the NFL) this means Washington has half the number of victories to make the postseason -- and the year isn't even halfway through.

Still, every game has felt like a drag, a drawn-out contest of attrition where victory has come late, only after a series of ordeals. None has been easy. And rarely has that happened for a team that is 5-2 by this point. Eventually by now a blowout should have come along. A week ago yesterday, a victory over the St. Louis Rams disappeared when a field goal whistled over the crossbar as the game ended. This time the field goal that would have brought overtime sailed just inches to the right of the goal post.

Both were games the Redskins probably should have won easily. That they didn't was hardly a concern in the Washington locker room afterward.

"We're playing great team ball right now and that's what is going to take us down the stretch," Portis said.

Some Redskins pointed to the way quarterback Jason Campbell has managed to go seven games without one interception -- a remarkable stretch for any player, including one who had 11 in 13 games last year.

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