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  Redskins Recover, Pounce on Cowboys, 20-17

By Richard Justice
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 14, 1992; Page C5

They'd been at it for three hours, pounding at one another like a pair of heavyweights, fighting through their emotions and their fatigue and their excitement. Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs later would call it a night he'd never forget, and running back Earnest Byner said it might be the biggest victory of his life, this from a guy who has played in three conference finals and a Super Bowl.

But with 3 1/2 minutes left, all Gibbs and Byner had to show for a long, draining afternoon was a four-point deficit. Then defensive tackle Jason Buck and safety Danny Copeland came up with an ending the Redskins will never forget, one that got them a 20-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in front of 56,437 yesterday at roaring, swaying RFK Stadium.

Copeland scored the winning touchdown picking up a fumble that ended a strange sequence begun by Buck's sack of Troy Aikman, and the Redskins had their third straight victory. They failed to clinch a playoff spot because Green Bay (8-6) defeated Houston last night, but can wrap up one with a victory in Philadelphia next Sunday. A loss to the Eagles would make the playoff picture much murkier; the Redskins would then be jockeying with the Vikings and Packers for the final wild-card spot.

Those possibilities were second to the emotion that swept through RFK and the home locker room yesterday after the Redskins rallied from a 17-7 halftime deficit on a day that included a string of big plays.

"It was one of the hardest-fought games I've ever been in," Gibbs said. "Everyone laid it on the line out there. This was one of the most emotional games I've been in, and it's one I'll always remember. There were a lot of great plays back and forth. This was two great teams, and had everything wrapped into it."

Including: Byner throwing a 41-yard touchdown pass for the Redskins' only offensive touchdown. Linebacker Andre Collins making a goal-line interception to stop a Dallas drive that probably would have sewn up the victory in the fourth quarter. Cornerback Darrell Green having a tough day against Dallas wide receivers Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper, but also stripping the ball from Irvin to stop another Cowboys drive.

"For me, this is as big a game as I've played in for the Redskins," Byner said. "Well, not as big as the Super Bowl, but right there.

The Cowboys' wonderful offensive machine ran up 343 yards, with Irvin catching five balls for 105 yards and tight end Jay Novacek catching a pair of touchdown passes. But the Cowboys didn't score in the second half and they lost three fumbles, matching their total for the previous 13 games.

Then at the end, Buck and Copeland made big plays and running back Emmitt Smith ruined a fine day -- 99 yards on 25 carries -- with a big mistake.

It was an ending that came in several parts. It sent Cowboys Coach Jimmy Johnson sprinting to midfield for an angry postgame tirade at the referees, it sent players from both sides scurrying home to their VCRs and it left the Redskins both joyous and exhausted.

The Cowboys led 17-13 when Aikman came to the line of scrimmage for a second-down-and-seven play from his 5-yard line. In a flash, Buck overpowered center Mark Stepnoski. Buck and Stepnoski collided with Aikman. Buck got a hand on the ball as Aikman began his throwing motion. The ball squirted free in the end zone and was picked up by running back Smith, who was tackled from behind by Collins and Copeland.

Smith tried to flip the ball out of the end zone, but Copeland reached into a tangle of players and grabbed it for the winning touchdown with 3:14 remaining. Television replays showed that Aikman was beginning to make a throw and that the pass could have been called incomplete.

"I was trying to get it out of there," Smith said. "My mistake. A loss is a loss. I can't pinpoint any one thing. We just didn't capitalize."

Asked if his arm was going forward, Aikman said: "I don't think it was, no. It could have gone either way. When you play on the road, you don't get the call like this."

Referees may have been confused because Copeland was running around on the 50-yard line celebrating the touchdown while they were looking for the ball in a pile of players in the end zone. Teammate Monte Coleman urged Copeland to go back into the end zone and when the touchdown was signaled, he did a Nestea plunge in front of the end zone stands.

"Andre jumped on Emmitt and I heard them yelling fumble," Copeland said. "I looked and it was rolling around. It fell between someone's knees and I pried it out."

The Cowboys weren't out of it. Aikman completed three straight passes to get them to the Redskins 38-yard line in the final two minutes. But sacks by Shane Collins and Coleman and a pass deflection by Green ended a strange day that mirrors a strange season.

"This is the kind of game you love when you have time to look back on it," Green said. "You don't love it when you're playing it."

The Cowboys (11-3) probably lost home-field advantage to the 12-2 San Francisco 49ers (if both teams get far enough to need it).

"The Redskins gave a great effort and we gave a great effort," Johnson said. "They are to be commended. Our guys will be all right. We came up short against a good football team on the road."

The Redskins overcame a bad day by Mark Rypien, who completed just 12 of 29 passes for 144 yards.

Rypien got off to a bad start when Jim Jeffcoat dropped him for a seven-yard sack on the Redskins' first third-down play. His second pass was almost intercepted when he and Art Monk got mixed up on a route. His third was a nine-yard completion to Monk and his fourth was an underthrow of an open Gary Clark.

But the first costly mistake wasn't his fault. On third and two at the Dallas 47, tight end Terry Orr bobbled a first-down pass into the hands of safety Kenneth Gant for an interception.

Gant returned it eight yards to the Redskins 42, and the Cowboys slugged out 37 yards to get Lin Elliott in position for a 23-yard field goal with 5:03 left in the first quarter.

The Redskins couldn't go anywhere in two more possessions, and when Kelly Goodburn shanked a 30-yard punt out of bounds, the Cowboys were at their own 47 with 13:07 left in the second quarter. They turned the bad punt into points by driving 53 yards in six plays, with Novacek slipping between safety Brad Edwards and Andre Collins to catch a five-yard touchdown pass with 10:09 left in the half.

The big play of the drive was Irvin turning Green around and catching a 40-yard completion to the 12-yard line. Three plays later, it was 10-0.

The Redskins then got a break. Rypien was booed after missing a wide-open Clark on a flea-flicker and again after overthrowing Clark on third and 15. But Goodburn hit another punt badly, and in trying to get out of the way, Dallas's Kelvin Martin slipped down.

The ball touched him, and Guy Bingham fell on it at the Dallas 41 for the Redskins. Byner cashed in quickly by starting a sweep to the right, then stopping and hitting Orr with a 41-yard touchdown pass to make it 10-7 with 8:13 left in the half.

Just before halftime, the Redskins broke down again. Martin returned Goodburn's line-drive punt 18 yards to the Redskins 42. Green was called for pass interference against Harper for 19 yards. Linebacker Wilber Marshall was slapped with a personal foul that put the ball at the 5. Then Aikman hit Novacek with a five-yard touchdown pass for a 17-7 lead with nine seconds left in the first half.

The Redskins got to 17-10 with a third-quarter drive that went 68 yards and consumed seven minutes, but still ended with Chip Lohmiller's 32-yard field goal. That series got as close as the 1, but Jim Jeffcoat dumped Rypien for a four-yard loss on a reverse play. Rypien then missed Clark in the end zone on third down.

The Cowboys then appeared close to putting the game away again, driving from their 31 to the Redskins 2. On third and goal, Aikman threw to Martin, but three Redskins were in the area.

Collins got it, and took it back 59 yards to the Dallas 42.

"It's a wonder I held on," Collins said. "I've had butterfingers all year. I don't know what he was seeing. I was just floating out there and the ball came right to me."

Rypien hit Clark for 16 and Ricky Sanders for 13. Then on third and four at the 5, he overthrew Sanders as Jeffcoat knocked him down. Lohmiller's 22-yard field goal with 7:02 left in the fourth quarter made it 17-13.

A holding call on the kickoff backed the Cowboys up to their 10, and on third and eight at the 12, Aikman hit Irvin for 20 yards and a first down. But as Irvin was going across the middle, Green raked the ball from his arm. Copeland picked it up at the 39 and returned it 15 yards to the 24.

Again, the Redskins couldn't get into the end zone. Rypien hit Clark for 13 to the 11, and Byner ran it to the 7. Rypien dumped it to Orr for five on third and six, and on fourth and one from the 2, the Redskins went for it with 3 1/3 minutes left.

Rypien threw for Clark in the left corner of the end zone and the ball was barely overthrown. The Cowboys took over at their 2, and after a three-yard run by Darryl Johnston, Buck hit Aikman to force the fumble that turned into the winning score.

"I don't believe in luck," Gibbs said. "You make things happen."

© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company

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