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Donovan McNabb and Redskins defense not perfect, but plenty plucky

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2010; 1:49 AM

I love these mano a mano title fights in prime time - the great Donovan McNabb vs. the really, really great Peyton Manning. Well, provided the Redskins don't go to the scorecards.

Manning, easily the most surgically gifted passer of his generation, a top-five all-time quarterback, did not win by knockout.

But he bloodied and battered that unbowed Redskins secondary before Washington's fourth-quarter comeback puttered to a halt, the victim of clock mismanagement at the end and a surreal game-ending interception.

And, okay, Manning was fairly flawless. Manning has more fourth-quarter comebacks than Tom Brady, his only real competition for Greatest QB of His Era. And his only genuine knock is having won the exact same amount of Super Bowls as his not-as-talented kid brother, Eli.

McNabb, meanwhile, has to be one of the most inaccurate elite quarterbacks of all time. When he lets go of an incredibly hideous throw, his coaches must sometime contort their innards the way coaches contorted their innards when John Starks once shot for the Knicks or Mitch Williams once pitched for the Phillies.

But he leads, makes big plays when his team is down and gives the Redskins organization its most bona fide shot at a Hall-of-Fame player in almost 20 years.

When he capped a 92-yard, 12-play drive down 10 points in the fourth quarter, finding Keiland Williams on the left hash like he found Brian Westbrook in Philly so many Sundays, all the unsightly possessions and passes credited to McNabb were gone

What remained was a franchise player doing everything he could to keep up with Manning, the most magnificent player on the field and, most weekends, in the NFL.

What had to be galling for the faithful, though, was how the Redskins defense - that same porous unit that gave up 170 yards rushing to a lousy running team and 307 yards to Manning - did its job at the end, getting the ball back, down a field goal. And all the McNabb-Shanahan brain trust could do was take 31 seconds to move a net zero yards in four downs, culminating in a deep ball to Anthony Armstrong against a defense that did not give up one single deep ball all night. That play was saved for that moment?

Harsh but true: perhaps the most important weapon McNabb has had the first six games of this season is playing alongside a defense that is knocking everyone out, making his inferior statistical lines often stand up.

What do Steven Jackson, Michael Vick, Aaron Rodgers and now Joseph Addai have in common? They either were knocked out of a game or suffered an actual concussion in consecutive weeks by a devastatingly violent defense that almost seems okay with giving up huge chunks of yardage as long as one of the other guys' offensive stars has to be helped off the field at some point.

That visible increase in monster hits - "bringing the pain," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander calls it - has helped conceal McNabb's flaws and given him the possessions and hope he needs to bring a team back from the brink.

It's why McNabb came into Sunday night 3-2 against some of the best in his profession: Tony Romo, Matt Schaub, for-real rookie Sam Bradford, Vick and Rodgers.

McNabb had to know he couldn't win the quarterback-rating game against Peyton Perfect - and Manning almost was when it mattered.

Manning's raw numbers (25 for 38 for 307 yards and two touchdowns) weren't as impressive as the demoralization factor. When the Redskins tied the game at 7 and then then pulled to 17-14, he marched his team right back down the field for a psychologically wounding touchdown.

Everything Washington put on the board came with maximum effort and the occasional fumble. Everything Indianapolis put on the board came because Manning can only miss so much or hand the ball off to Addai, who left the game in the second half after London Fletcher dropped him cold.

No one expected the 30th-ranked passing defense to contain the NFL's third-ranked pass offense. But the Redskins, who looked outclassed early in the fourth quarter, found that same drive that propelled them against the Packers a week ago and made the drama last till the end again.

Thank goodness for the VIPs in black "Alumni" jackets that Washington made it a scrap.

The game had meaning the moment 62 team alumni took the field for a group photo. What an incredible amalgam of history. It included the obvious favorites: Sonny and Sam; but also Deacon Jones; Ted Marchibroda, George Allen's offensive coordinator before his days in Indy; and, of course, Boss Hog - Joe Bugel and that famed offensive line, including the one who reconvened the 5 O'Clock Club in Canton, Ohio, this past August.

Russ Grimm wore his Hall of Fame jacket, inspired the fans at halftime as his name was added to the Ring of Honor and basically provided a nice balm on a night when Manning was dissecting the home team.

Something else lent a gravitas to the occasion, too - something more contemporary than classic.

The Redskins were not on national television last season until Week 7 and did not reappear till Week 15. After the Dallas opener, this was already Washington's second appearance on NBC's Sunday night game. McNabb's return to Philadelphia was Fox's game of the week. His next game against his former team will be in mid-November on a Monday night - meaning more viewers will have seen four of the Redskins' first nine games than any other NFL team.

This is tangential, I know. But something about having the team in your market flood American living rooms - spoken of in reverential terms by Bob Costas and Al Michaels - makes the franchise feel more legitimate, less forgettable.

If Bruce Allen gets credit for paying homage to team history, Mike Shanahan and McNabb get the nod for giving the Redskins a cache that was lacking since Joe Gibbs has been gone.

Now if that Manning character hadn't picked that secondary apart so flawlessly for more than three quarters - and the offense didn't stall so late - the Redskins may have found a way against the defending AFC champion and moved to what would have been a very surprising 4-2.

Still, it's hard to imagine many .500 teams putting much more of a premium on drama, no?

On to Chicago.

On to Sometimes-Still-Dangerous Donovan McNabb vs. Joyless and No Longer Rejuvenated Jay Cutler.

On to finding out who's the pretender - and who still thinks of themselves as a contender - in the NFC.

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