This strike-marred National Football League season keeps getting better and better for the Washington Redskins, who scrambled to win their seventh game today before hearing the best news: they are alone atop the National Football Conference standings with just one regular-season contest remaining.
The Redskins' sputtering 27-10 victory over the New Orleans Saints, coupled with Philadelphia's 24-20 upset of Dallas, moved Washington (7-1) one game ahead of the Cowboys (6-2). If those rankings don't change after next weekend's games, the upstart Redskins would have the home field advantage for every NFC playoff game in which they participate.
"There is nothing better than to be No. 1," defensive end Dexter Manley said. "Maybe this will help us get a little more recognition. I was so glad that Dallas lost. They'll be back, but I think our time is here."
The Redskins hardly had an easy time getting to the postgame celebration. Even though many of the Saints' best offensive players sat on the bench most of the game with injuries, and even though inexperienced Guido Merkens was the New Orleans quarterback, the Redskins had enough trouble with their foes' aggressive defense to feel pressed until scoring 10 points in the fourth quarter.
Even though the victory wasn't very pretty, the offense at least snapped out of its prolonged scoring slump. Washington wound up with three touchdowns, equaling its output for the previous four weeks, mainly because receiver Charlie Brown regained his end zone touch.
Brown, the marvelous first-year player from South Carolina State, caught touchdown passes of 57 and 58 yards. The latter reception, which Brown pulled in after stepping out of bounds and then leaning over defender Johnnie Poe, led to one of the season's best controversies. It took game officials a good five minutes to decide to let the play stand, although neither Coach Bum Phillips nor Saints fans in the Superdome agreed with the decision.
These were Brown's seventh and eighth scoring catches of the season, tops in the NFC. He had two other receptions, and gained 156 yards for the game, most by a Redskins receiver this season.
The team's 448 yards were its most since its season-opening game against Philadelphia. And the defense limited the Saints to 197 yards, its second-stingiest showing this year. Still, this was hardly the easy game many might have expected once Saints quarterback Ken Stabler (sore wrist) and halfback George Rogers (hamstring) were held out.
With almost nine minutes left in the game, New Orleans trailed by only seven points. Then Mark Moseley's 45-yard field goal, his second of the game and 23rd straight over two years to extend his league record, followed by John Riggins' one-yard touchdown run with 5 1/2 minutes remaining, ended the Saints' playoff hopes.
"It was a tough situation for New Orleans, but they gave us a very physical, difficult game," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "We tried just about everything we had offensively, but they came right at us and we didn't get a lot out of it. With the way they play, you can never look very smooth. You just have to take your shots and hope that's enough."
The Saints, ranked second defensively in the conference, went after quarterback Joe Theismann with all combinations of blitzes, which forced an uneven performance from the Redskins' offense.
"They did a good job on our early down running plays, too," said Theismann, who completed 14 of 23 passes for 264 yards and those two touchdowns to Brown. Seven of his completions were for at least 20 yards, accounting for 218 yards in all.
The first opening came on the Redskins' fourth play of the game. The Saints blitzed all four linebackers and Brown was left matched against Poe. He ran a simple streak pattern down the middle of the field and Theismann hit him with a perfect, in-stride pass. Even though Poe was called for interference, Brown caught the ball and sprinted into the end zone to complete the 57-yard play. Moseley's conversion kick made it 7-0 with 11:06 left in the opening quarter.
After the Saints tied on Jimmy Rogers' four-yard run following Joe Washington's fumble at midfield, Theismann pounced again.
This time, New Orleans tried a safety blitz. Both Brown and Theismann saw it coming, so Brown ran a go pattern down the sideline, hoping he'd be covered only by the laboring Poe. He was, and Theismann quickly got off the pass from his 42.
That's when the controversy started. Television replays showed that Poe bumped Brown out of bounds just before he reached the Saints' 40. A flag was thrown for pass interference as Brown stepped out of bounds with his left foot, then reached over Poe and caught the pass, which the officials said was deflected by the Saints' cornerback. Brown pulled away and the Redskins had a 14-7 lead.
Phillips was not cheering. He was screaming at referee Chuck Heberling and head linesman Terry Gierke, who made the interference call. The officials huddled, then Heberling again signaled "touchdown."
The key to the call was the decision that the pass was tipped. Under the rules, according to the referee, once that happens every player is eligible to catch it, even one who has gone out of bounds. If Brown had not caught the ball, the Saints would have been penalized at the 40 for interference.
Phillips said he thought Brown "was out of bounds. He was right in front of me. But I really couldn't see his feet." Television replays appeared to show Brown's left leg was in the air and his right toe was in bounds when he caught the ball. But it was not clear whether his right heel was off the ground or hitting the sideline marker as he caught the ball, although it appeared his heel was off the ground.
The touchdown put the Redskins ahead for good, but it didn't put them in charge of the game. Earlier, Theismann had lost a fumble at the Saints' three at the end of a 16-yard scramble -- "I was trying to score instead of protecting the ball," he said. Next, the Redskins let a touchdown get away late in the half when, on second and two from the New Orleans seven after a 35-yard pass to Art Monk, Theismann was sandwiched by two tacklers and fumbled again. The ball bounced toward midfield and out of bounds before anyone could recover. Theismann's 16-yard scramble set up Moseley's first field goal, of 36 yards.
Morten Andersen's 36-yard field goal late in the third quarter pulled the Saints to 17-10. But Merkens, a wide receiver getting his first pro start at quarterback, was having problems against the pass rush.
Instead of the Saints tying, Moseley kicked his second field goal after Theismann passed 24 yards to Don Warren. Then the Saints got burned by Joe Washington, who finally was getting extra playing time, in part because John Riggins' thigh had been bruised in the first quarter.
Washington started to sweep around left end, saw that was not a good idea and cut back to his right. He found an opening up the middle, dodged three tacklers and raced down the sideline before stepping out with a 40-yard gain. On the next play, Clarence Harmon went 19 yards to the one, then Riggins scored.
"We just aren't going to have any easy ones," Gibbs said. "We now have a knack of winning. But this is a fantastic feeling to be in first place. The only problem is, now we have to make sure we stay where we are."