The Washington Redskins won their first National Football Conference Eastern Division championship since the 1991 season tonight, defeating the San Francisco 49ers, 26-20, in overtime at 3Com Park.
The Redskins had gained their first National Football League playoff appearance since the 1992 season before taking the field, and quarterback Brad Johnson's 33-yard touchdown pass to fullback Larry Centers two minutes into the extra period finished a comeback from a 20-10 fourth-quarter deficit and was the final link in a chain of events that began Friday, when the Dallas Cowboys lost.
Losses this afternoon by the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers put the Redskins (9-6) in the playoffs. But they did even better behind Johnson, who completed 32 of 47 passes for a club-record 471 yards and two touchdowns and ran for the tying touchdown with 3 minutes 28 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. The victory guaranteed them of having at least one playoff game at home--a first for FedEx Field.
The Redskins' locker room was a place of revelry afterward. There were hugs and high-fives all around, and NFC East Championship hats for everyone. Team owner Daniel M. Snyder, whose aggressive, hands-on management of the team has been one of Washington's--and the NFL's--most talked-about stories this fall and winter, presented Coach Norv Turner with the game ball.
"In the second half [of tonight's game] we defined what this team is and what they're made of," Turner said. "And I think we defined it pretty well."
Said running back Skip Hicks, who started in place of leading rusher Stephen Davis, out with a sprained ankle: "It's great to go into the playoffs as division champions. We were going regardless, but it's great to go making a statement."
Just making the playoffs, however, was an achievement for the Redskins and Turner, who had been unable to lead the team to postseason play during his first five seasons with Washington.
The Redskins had a 6-10 record last season and endured a tumultuous offseason that included contentious bidding for the team, its stadium and training facility when they were auctioned by the estate of late team owner Jack Kent Cooke.
Before this evening's game, Snyder reveled in the accomplishment in typical fashion.
"It's just the beginning, and we look forward to a successful postseason and bringing special play back to Washington," said Snyder, who told Turner before the season that the team had to make the playoffs for Turner to keep his job.
After the game, a jubilant Snyder said: "The credit goes to the team. Norv hung in there--he's a true champion."
Nevertheless, Snyder was not announcing any personnel decisions tonight, preferring to hail his team and coaching staff, proudly proclaiming them "NFC East champions."
While the Redskins will be considered a long shot to win a Super Bowl championship, anything can happen once a team advances to the postseason, as players and coaches know.
Earlier this week, it seemed unlikely the Redskins would become one of the NFC's six playoff teams without winning tonight. On Friday, though, the Cowboys lost to the New Orleans Saints, 31-24; the Saints entered that game with a 2-12 record that was the NFC's worst.
The Panthers began this afternoon favored to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had lost six consecutive games. But the Panthers, who had won four of their previous five games, fell, 30-20, in a snowstorm in Pittsburgh.
Later in the day, the Packers were defeated, 29-10, by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were coming off a 45-0 loss last weekend.
The playoff berth is a personal triumph for Snyder, 35, the NFL's youngest owner, who certainly did his part to inject passion and urgency into a franchise that had missed the playoffs every year since Joe Gibbs resigned as coach in spring 1993.
The playoff berth is vindication, too, for Turner, whose prowess as an offensive coach was fully realized this season, thanks largely to the accuracy and poise of Johnson. Acquired in a controversial trade with the Minnesota Vikings in February, he is the first accomplished quarterback Turner has had in his tenure as the Redskins' coach. Tonight, he showed why the Redskins were willing to give up a first-, a second- and a third-round draft pick to acquire him.
Above all, the Redskins' playoff berth is the realization of a dream for the players, most of whom have only watched postseason games on television.
Few observers expected much from the 1999 Redskins when the season dawned. And they began the season with a stunning collapse against the Dallas Cowboys. Playing at home, Washington squandered a 21-point, fourth-quarter lead and lost in overtime, 41-35. The defense was primarily to blame that day and continued to fall short of expectations as the season ground on. But Johnson and the offense usually more than compensated.
In the season's second half, the Redskins' offense cooled and the defense shouldered more of the weight. Snyder tried to help his players perform like the Redskins teams he had loved as a child growing up in Montgomery County. He brought in a consultant, veteran coach Bill Arnsparger, to figure out what ailed the team's defense. He considered firing defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. He huddled frequently with Turner. And he appealed to a handful of veteran players directly, urging them to play with the sort of passion he considered essential to success.
"We struggled, but we came up big when it counted," Johnson said after tonight's game. "It's a great feeling to help this team move to the next level.
CAPTION: With a 26-20 overtime victory over the 49ers and the NFC East title in hand, Rod Milstead (69) and the Redskins let everything go.