By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008
During the final seconds of their second straight poor performance in a high-profile matchup, the Washington Redskins began to assess a suddenly troubling situation. A season that seemed so promising a short time ago has taken a difficult turn, and it only got harder last night with a 14-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field.
Washington continued to struggle on offense in losing for the second time in as many games before 90,830, most of whom waved "rally rags" and celebrated the return of Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts -- the team's top running backs -- who played despite still being hampered by knee injuries.
In a familiar story, the offense did little to assist the NFL's fourth-ranked defense, and the Cowboys capitalized on the bounce they received from the return of quarterback Tony Romo.
Sidelined for three games because of a broken pinkie, Romo started slowly, with two interceptions in the first half, but delivered in the fourth quarter as Dallas rallied for the victory. He teamed with backup tight end Martellus Bennett on a 25-yard touchdown pass for the go-ahead score with 10 minutes 36 seconds remaining in the game.
"They scored a touchdown, and we did not answer," Coach Jim Zorn said. "We had to answer with another touchdown, and we couldn't do it."
Bennett beat rookie strong safety Chris Horton off the line of scrimmage and made a nifty catch in the end zone while absorbing a hit from free safety LaRon Landry. "I thought I was in pretty good position. I just thought he made a great catch on the ball," Horton said. "Somebody's got to make a play. I didn't make a play. He made it."
Then the Cowboys' defense also succeeded in its biggest test. With Washington at the Dallas 37-yard line and needing four yards on fourth down, cornerback Terence Newman, who had a third-quarter interception, stuck close to wide receiver Santana Moss near the right sideline. Quarterback Jason Campbell's pass fell incomplete with 6:40 left to play, and Dallas running back Marion Barber finished off the Redskins.
Barber touched the ball on 11 consecutive plays (10 rushes, one reception), and Romo kneeled twice to run out the clock. Barber finished with 114 yards on 24 carries and one touchdown, faring much better than he did in a 26-yard performance during Washington's 26-24 win on Sept. 28 at Dallas.
"I worked hard in the offseason and in practice, and I had the energy at the end of the game," Barber said. "When you have guys up front making holes, it can happen."
Dallas (6-4) accomplished its main goal in what many Cowboys players described as a must-win game for a team that still has significant postseason aspirations despite stumbling through the first half of its schedule amid a circus-like atmosphere. Owner Jerry Jones recently said the Cowboys would qualify for the playoffs despite their problems, and they remained in contention in a crowded mix.
"I don't know when I have been any prouder; this team just wouldn't let it happen any other way," Jones said. "We all know what was at stake here, and I'm so proud of both sides of the ball. I have a lot of respect for the Redskins as a team, but I really know what this win meant, and we can really build off of it."
The Redskins (6-4) still are in the hunt, too, but their footing appears to be not as firm as a few weeks ago. Dominated by the Pittsburgh Steelers in a 23-6 loss in Week 9, Washington came back from its bye week with another inefficient outing on offense that has stirred concern from FedEx to Redskins Park.
Washington raised hopes during a 6-2 start, and a playoff berth is within the Redskins' reach. But when the battle of NFC East rivals had ended, Jones and the Cowboys were the only ones who had reason to smile.
"We're putting ourselves in a tough situation," left tackle Chris Samuels said. "We haven't played great lately, we haven't done the things we know we can do, but it is what it is. We've got to play better and get the job done."
Dallas had 315 net yards to 228 for the Redskins. Washington had 221 yards against the Steelers. After sitting out practice all week because of a sprained medial collateral ligament, Portis had 68 yards on 15 rushes. Betts, who missed three games because of a sprained knee, had one yard on one rush and 27 yards on two receptions.
"Before the game, I had to come back and warm up before everybody got here, and I felt good," Portis said. "The pain, well, once you get adrenaline and all that going, you block out the pain."
After giving up a season-high seven sacks against Pittsburgh, the Redskins again experienced problems in pass protection. Dallas had three sacks, including one in the third quarter that occurred just before place kicker Shaun Suisham missed a 46-yard field goal attempt.
The Redskins were leading 10-7 and had driven to the Cowboys 20-yard line. With Washington needing 13 yards on third down, Dallas nose tackle Jay Ratliff beat right guard Randy Thomas for his second sack. After the eight-yard loss, Suisham's kick fell short of the goal posts.
"It's tough to swallow when you're a pro and you don't play as a pro," Thomas said. "I gave up a big sack that made the field goal longer. It fell short by about two yards. If I wouldn't have gave that sack up, it would have went right through the uprights.
"If I would have made that block, we would have been looking at a one-point game at the end. We just can't have that happen. I have to be critical of myself."
Neither team could establish a consistent rhythm on offense in a scoreless third quarter. The Redskins began the second half with a three-point lead and the ball.
Starting at their 13, the Redskins ran 12 plays in advancing to the Cowboys 35-yard line. But on third down, with Campbell looking for Moss along the right sideline, cornerback Terence Newman got between Moss and the ball and came up with an interception.
Romo threw two first-half interceptions. The Redskins, thanks to a big play by special-teams standout Rock Cartwright late in the second quarter, held a 10-7 halftime lead. Cartwright had a 58-yard kickoff return, and Suisham kicked a 41-yard field goal just before halftime.
Campbell teamed with fullback Mike Sellers on a two-yard touchdown in the first quarter. He completed 22 of 34 passes but only had 162 yards. Although the Redskins have put themselves in a tough spot to qualify for the playoffs, now is not the time to panic Campbell said.
"We have six more games left in the season," Campbell said. "We have to take 'em one game at a time, because we're really playing for our season."