Fifty-seven seconds remained and the Redskins were leading, 24-22. A rain-soaked crowd in RFK Stadium stood as John Smith, the New England kicker, lined up to try a career-best 53-yard field goal.
Washington Coach Joe Gibbs paced the sideline. "I felt helpless," he said. "All I could do was pray. That's what I did, pray. We needed to win this one. It was something our players deserved."
Gibbs got his wish and the Redskins had their second victory in eight games when the attempt by Smith wobbled into the end zone far short of the crossbar.
"Everything was right -- the snap, the hold, the kick," said Smith, who earlier had made field goals from 25, 22 and 46 yards, but never has kicked a game-winner in eight years as a pro. "The kick just didn't go far enough."
Nothing went quite far enough for New England yesterday. The Patriots (2-6) followed what had been a typical Redskin game pattern this season by running up a huge statistical advantage, only to have turnovers, penalties, dropped passes and numerous botched plays.
"It was about time some breaks went our way," said middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz, who had 12 tackles and one of Washington's two interceptions. "We know how they felt. We've been there a lot this season."
Against New England's 409 total yards, including 12 completed passes of at least 15 yards, the Redskins countered with a productive performance by halfback Joe Washington (47 rushing yards, 97 receiving yards), a stunning 75-yard scoring punt return by Mike Nelms, and an ad-lib one-yard touchdown run by quarterback Joe Theismann for the winning touchdown with 3:34 left in the third period.
"I think we all were sweating those final few minutes," safety Mark Murphy said. "We were just hoping we could come up with a play, or do something to stop them. They are so dangerous."
The Patriots came away convinced the officials had as much to do with beating them as the Redskins. Two calls in particular during their drive before Smith's ill-fated field-goal attempt (an offensive pass interference penalty on receiver Stanley Morgan and a holding call on tackle Shelby Jordan) left them livid.
"I shouldn't say anything because I'll get fined," said New England Coach Ron Erhardt, who was obviously angered. Erhardt charged after the officials when the game ended, but afterwards would only mutter: "Those damn flags, those damn flags."
But Gibbs also could point to a controversial official's decision as playing a pivotal role.
That call came late in the second period. Terry Metcalf, playing his first game as a receiver, leaped high for pass from Theismann, caught it and then lost possession as he was hit by cornerback Ray Clayborn. It was ruled a fumble, with New England recovering at its 46.
"The rule says that you have to land with both feet hitting the ground before possession can be ruled," Gibbs said. "He never came to the ground. I'll tell you, it made our players mad. They really went after it after that."
After quarterback Steve Grogan lost 17 yards on a sack by defensive end Mat Mendenhall, the Patriots punted to Nelms at his 25. Nelms sidestepped Rick Sanford, who had a clear shot at making a tackle, and then sprinted up the middle. Only two defenders, punter Rich Camarillo and linebacker Don Blackmon, were left by the time Nelms got to midfield.
"I saw Terry (Metcalf) coming from the outside and I veered out to give him some room," Nelms said. Metcalf, who was outraged over the fumble call, said he "wanted to hit some leather; I wanted to make something happen."
With one flying block, he did. He knocked down both Patriots and Nelms ran untouched into the end zone. Mark Moseley kicked the extra point and the Redskins trailed, 15-14, at halftime.
The Patriots should have been much further ahead. They reached the Redskin 5, 4, 8 and 24 in the half, yet came away with only three field goals by Smith and a six-yard touchdown run by Tony Collins. That offset Nelms' score and a 13-yard touchdown pass from Theismann to Joe Washington.
Murphy's interception set up a 34-yard field goal by Moseley and Collins' fumble at his 44 on a solid hit by Nelms led to Theismann's touchdown for a 24-15 lead.
Theismann's score was typical of how things were going for Washington. On a fourth and goal at the one, after three running plays could pick up one yard, Theismann tried to hand off to John Riggins. Riggins stumbled and Theismann realized he couldn't get the ball to his fullback.
"It was the old busted play," Theismann said. "I said, 'Oh my God, what do I do now? I decided it was better to go right than left.' " So he took off around right end, outrunning the Patriot defense for a touchdown.
"My teammates congratulated me for the bootleg play," Theismann said. "Hey, we don't have a bootleg play in our offense, but maybe we will now."
The Patriots hardly were out of the game. With Grogan passing deep almost at will in the face of a spotty pass rush and loose coverage, New England got a touchdown from Sam Cunningham early in the fourth to cut the deficit to 24-22.
Washington tried to run out the clock later in the quarter, but had a first down nullified at midfield on a holding call against tackle George Starke. Mike Connell had to punt, and New England took over at its 19 with 2:33 remaining.
"We didn't want to use a prevent defense and we didn't want to go man-to-man, so we tried to mix them up," Murphy said. "They just had a smart game plan. They used a lot of in patterns that worked well."
A 17-yard completion to Morgan and a 20-yard diving catch by Harold Jackson quickly had the Patriots at the Redskin 44. Tackle Perry Brooks sacked Grogan on first down, but a 21-yard pass to tight end Don Hasselback, who had five catches for 112 yards, got another first down at the 25.
New England was almost within the range of Smith, whose career best is 50 yards. Collins, who rushed for 103 yards, tried an end sweep, but Jordan was called for holding, costing the Patriots 10 yards. After two incompletions, Grogan's downfield attempt sailed high as Morgan and cornerback Lemar Parrish leaped for the ball. A flag was dropped.
"I started screaming," Gibbs said. "The way things have been going for us, I felt it had to be against us. I was relieved when it wasn't."
The call was against Morgan for shoving Parrish in the back. "He pushed me," Parrish said.
"I didn't," said Morgan, who wanted interference on Parrish. Gibbs declined the penalty, figuring the 53-yard attempt was too much for Smith, known for his limited range.
Gibbs was overjoyed afterward. He had built a game plan around tight end Rich Caster, only to have Caster go out with a damaged left knee in the first period. He had wanted to control the ball and the clock, only to see New England run off 15 more plays and consume four more minutes. But his team still won.
"We've gone through so much, lost so many guys and taken so many losses," he said. "But for the last three weeks we've played well and played hard. This just showed everyone that it was worthwhile. Boy, does it feel great."