They were singing and chanting in the Washington locker room today, celebrating a not very pretty 12-7 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals that the Redskins were sure had put them into the playoffs.
"Obviously nothing is official, but how can we not be in the playoffs, now that we are 5-1?" said guard Mark May after Mark Moseley's four field goals on a treacherous field had given the Redskins their fifth straight road triumph in two years. Moseley has kicked 15 straight this season and 18 straight over two years.
"This is what we wanted," May said of a team that has won eight of its last nine and 13 of its last 17. "This is what we were aiming for today. Now we can focus on making sure we have the home field advantage. That's our next goal."
As the only 5-1 team in the National Football Conference (4-1 Dallas plays Houston Monday night) and with only three games to go, Washington would be hard pressed not to make the playoffs for the first time since 1976. So what if it is an abbreviated season? The players, who still remember being 0-5 last season, aren't complaining.
The Redskins, who do nothing easily, won this game in much the same manner as the previous four, scratching and scrambling all the way. This victory was not assured until the final play of the game: Jim Hart's long pass into the end zone that was batted down at the gun by safety Mark Murphy.
And every week, the Redskins keep hoping the sure-footed Moseley can make every field goal he attempts.
Today, Moseley again was perfect -- almost. He missed from 37 yards in the first quarter. But the Cardinals were offside, giving him a second chance. He promptly scored from 32 yards, then from 30, 20 and 24, saving an offense that twice failed to get a touchdown after having first and goal.
Moseley's streak of 18 in a row is the second-longest in National Football League history. The only kicker ahead of him is Garo Yepremian, who made 20 straight playing for Miami and New Orleans in 1978 and 1979.
"I just have to feel that missing that one and getting it back makes up for all the ones in the past that I've hit good and missed," Moseley said.
Moseley's streak was kept going despite poor field conditions. Although the sun shone brightly and there was little wind, the artificial turf was mostly frozen -- "It was like Ice Capades out there," cornerback Vernon Dean said -- because of the 22-degree temperature. Good traction was as hard to find as warm hands.
Yet the Cardinals had more trouble handling the field than the visitors, who play their home games on natural turf.
St. Louis handed this one away with several critical errors: a penalty that nullified Stump Mitchell's 80-yard punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter, a missed 26-yard field goal following Ottis Anderson's 64-yard run and three fumbles that ended drives at Washington's 16, 29 and 32. And this from a team that had made only four turnovers in the previous five games.
"Frustrating," said Coach Jim Hanifan, who turned to the veteran Hart in the fourth quarter when second-year man Neil Lomax could not produce points.
"This is typical for us," said Washington Coach Joe Gibbs. "Nothing smooth. We can't dominate, it always comes down to field goals. We were very fortunate a lot of times in this one."
The Redskins made only one mistake, John Riggins' first fumble in his last 319 carries. But it almost handed the game back to the Cardinals just when their fans were serenading them with boos.
This was the situation: Hanifan, upset that his offense couldn't score despite numerous opportunities, benched Lomax in the fourth quarter just after Moseley gave the Redskins a 12-0 lead. In came Hart, whose duels with the Washington defense over the years have become the most interesting aspect of this rivalry.
Hart quickly quarterbacked his team 63 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown, which came on a five-yard pass to tight end Greg LaFleur with 3:08 left in the game. The march used up almost seven precious minutes.
Still, Hart had rattled the Redskins.
"I said, 'Oh my God, here we go again,' " Gibbs said. "I thought of all those times when I was here (as an assistant coach) that he led the team back. Must have been 15 or 20 times. It scared me."
The Redskins got the ball back with 2:58 remaining. Quarterback Joe Theismann scrambled to turn a busted flea-flicker pass into a 10-yard gain. Then, with Joe Washington on the bench with a sore hand (he had eight receptions in the first half), the Redskins had little choice but to go into what they call their "Riggo drill."
Five straight times, Riggins carried, picking up a first down and 21 of his game total 89 yards (on 26 carries) while the Cardinals used all their timeouts.
With 79 seconds left, Washington faced third and one at the St. Louis 40. One more first down and Theismann could run out the clock by falling down. Riggins cut off right tackle, was hit low by linebacker Craig Puki and flew through the air. Before he hit the ground, he fumbled and the ball bounced straight to Puki, who was lying on the field.
"I was in a jovial state until I saw that fumble," defensive tackle Dave Butz said. "I was so happy to see the offense running out the clock. But I got serious awfully fast."
But even Hart, faced with no timeouts, just 62 seconds and 59 yards to the end zone, couldn't complete this miracle. He did get two first downs. With only six seconds left, at the 26, his only option was to throw a high pass toward three receivers in the end zone and hope one might catch a deflection.
Instead, Murphy stretched his 6-foot-4 frame to its limit and knocked the pass away.
Both teams came away frustrated by botched opportunities, which started with an illegal use of the hands penalty that nullified Mitchell's punt return the first time the Cardinals had the ball.
Anderson gained 109 yards, most against the Redskins in eight games, yet lost a fumble at the Redskins' 29. And sure-handed fullback Wayne Morris lost the ball at the Redskins' 32 midway through the third quarter after 288 errorless carries.
The Redskins' problems centered on their ineptness near the St. Louis end zone. They had first and 10 at the 12 in the first period, but a sack of Theismann forced them to settle for Moseley's 32-yard field goal.
They had first and goal at the nine and second and goal at the three, but Art Monk couldn't handle a third-down pass prior to Moseley's 20-yarder. And they had first and goal at the seven in the fourth period before two incompletions brought on Moseley for his fourth field goal.
"We tried just about everything we had at the goal line," Gibbs said. "But first and goal at the nine or seven is the hardest place to be in football. I'd much rather be at the three or four, where we can give John the ball three or four times. But I still think we are a good goal-line team."
Said Theismann, who was 17 of 26 for 188 yards, "After everything that went wrong, all I could think of at the end was Dallas, 1979, and the way a fumble lost that game. But this team is different, we aren't going to lose games that way. That's why it looks like we are a shoo-in for the playoffs. We're going to stay in a winning groove, not a losing rut."