In the fitful finish today, even Neil O'Donoghue couldn't botch this one.
He kicked a 21-yard field goal with five seconds to play, giving the St. Louis Cardinals a 26-24 victory over the Washington Redskins before 51,517 at soggy Busch Stadium.
After a game-long pendulum at last stopped at defeat for the Redskins, Cardinals zealots immediately took to the streets to honk horns in celebration of attaining first place. They barely seemed to mind that O'Donoghue, the Cardinals' Irish-born kicker, had missed on two field goal attempts and a fourth-quarter extra-point try prior to his game-winning apology.
And Redskins tight end Rick Walker said the truest thing of all: "We had our opportunities."
The Redskins not only lost a 21-10 third-quarter lead, they also lost sole possession of first place in the NFC Eastern Division, a five-game winning streak and all-pro center Jeff Bostic, who tore ligaments in his right knee and likely is out for the season. All-pro left guard Russ Grimm had to move to center and Ken Huff went in at guard in the final quarter.
"We better go home, soul search and get our act together," Redskins offensive guard Mark May said after the Cardinals had tied the Redskins at a first-place 5-3. Dallas created a three-way tie at the halfway point of the regular season by defeating the New Orleans Saints, 30-27, in overtime.
"I'm so happy right now," said Cardinals defensive end Al (Bubba) Baker. "This is probably the first time in my life that I don't know what to say."
The Redskins will carry painful memories of this one. Reflection will remind their defense that it could not stop wide receiver Roy (Jet Stream) Green, who caught 166 yards worth of quarterback Neil Lomax's passes, including a 38-yard touchdown catch for the game's first points and an 83-yard touchdown catch where he outran safety Tony Peters for the score that made it 24-23, before O'Donoghue botched the extra point, with 11:31 to play.
The Redskins' defenders also will reflect on how Lomax, who grows better by the game, threw for 361 yards and three touchdowns to assure this third straight St. Louis victory.
The Redskins also will reflect on how their own offense became so conservative in trying to hold their fading fourth-quarter lead, constantly running fullback John Riggins (32 carries for 98 yards) more times for fewer yards. Each of their last two drives ended on third-down incompletions on passes from quarterback Joe Theismann to wide receiver Art Monk.
"We were hoping to squeeze in a few first downs," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "We didn't want to risk an interception so we went with the run."
After O'Donoghue missed wide right on a 40-yarder with 2:53 to play, the Redskins' offense needed one last, long drive to run out the clock on a 24-23 victory. But they punted after three plays.
These Redskins also will reflect on how fortunate they were to trail by only 10-7 at halftime after a foolish clipping penalty against the Cardinals nullified Stump Mitchell's 50-yard touchdown return of a second-quarter punt. They also will recall how Lomax somehow overthrew receiver Pat Tilley, who had spun cornerback Vernon Dean in circles, and was wide open for a 57-yard touchdown pass two plays after Mitchell's negated return.
And surely the Hogs will curse to themselves over the fact that they allowed blizting safety Lee Nelson to sack Theismann near the end of the half, forcing him fumble away at least three points, with linebacker Kurt Allerman recovering the ball at the St. Louis five.
The Redskins might think fondly of how Theismann threw two more scoring passes today (nine over the last three weeks), both coming on the same "Scat-371" play that puts the H-back in motion. First, Theismann hit tight end Clint Didier for a three-yard score in the first quarter, then he threw to tight end Rick Walker for a seven-yard score to create the 21-10 third-quarter lead.
"At 21-10, I was thinking, 'Keep rubbing it in, get some more points,' " recalled Didier. Linebacker Rich Milot said, "I thought we were finally in control at 21-10."
And Riggins, whose two-yard scoring run in the third quarter allowed him to tie Franco Harris for second place on the all-time list with 91 rushing touchdowns (14 behind Jim Brown's all-time record), said of the 21-10 edge that was built on his bullish runs, "I felt the tempo, the momentum swing our way. No one on the sideline thought the game was over, though. When I smell death on the other team, I take myself out of the game. I never felt that way today."
The Redskins' offense opened the third quarter smoking, following what several players described as an emotional halftime meeting. "We all came in at the half and looked in the mirror," said May, "and knew that we all had played badly in the first half: offense, defense and special teams."
The Redskins started the quarter with a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive dominated by Riggins (eight carries for 40 yards) and a 33-yard pass play to wide receiver Calvin Muhammad. Next, defensive end Tony McGee forced Lomax to fumble and tackle Dave Butz recovered at the St. Louis 26. The Redskins again scored and led, 21-10, and these Cardinals seemed about to fade, just like the Cardinals who had lost five consecutive games and 14 of the last 16 to the Redskins.
It didn't happen.
Most likely, memories of how the Cardinals' defensive line stunted and blitzed, and moved Baker to so many different rushing positions, will jar any sweet Redskin thoughts about a productive offense. Theismann was sacked four times, all in the first half, and often was forced to hurry passes.
Theismann, who finished 15 of 29 for 224 yards, said he hadn't been under so much pressure since the Los Angeles Raiders sacked him six times in the Super Bowl.
Asked if he had been injured, he replied, "Just my pride. I hate to lose a game like this."
Most of all, the Redskins will remember how the Cardinals traversed 59 yards on 10 plays, without the benefit of any timeouts, to set up the game-winning field goal.
The Redskins' defenders shook their heads in a defeated way about three plays on the final drive. On the first play, Lomax completed an 11-yard pass to running back Ottis Anderson, moving the ball to the St. Louis 44 at the two-minute warning.
"We had him stopped to the outside," recalled free safety Curtis Jordan, "then he cut back to the middle."
Another key play came on third and eight from the Washington 38, when Lomax completed a short pass into the left flat to Mitchell, who gained 16 yards and a first down at the Washington 22, with 41 seconds left.
"I had Mitchell man to man," said Milot. "I overplayed it to the inside and he went to the outside."
Lomax then hit Tilley, sliding over the middle inside the zone defense, for a 21-yard gain, to the eight with eight seconds remaining. With no timeouts left, Lomax called a quick huddle and intentionally threw the ball out of bounds, to stop the clock for O'Donoghue's game-winner.
Jordan said the Redskins blitzed on "about half" of the 10 plays in the final drive.
Of Tilley's catch, he said, "It's a tough pass to stop. With that little time left, you have got to figure they will go to the outside (to stop the clock). They went inside and they are lucky the clock didn't run out on them."
The Cardinals were in a first-place tizzy. Linebacker E.J. Junior said, "The Redskins are the best team all around that we have faced this year and that includes Miami. I hope it comes down to the next Washington game for the (division) title."
"This is the toughest regular-season loss we've had in two years," Jordan said.
Riggins said, "I was a little surprised that they played so well against the run."
May said, "What did their defense do? Gambling is what it's called. They grabbed and they did dishpan stunts. They bear-hugged to death. They blitzed with the strong safety. They threw the kitchen sink at us."
Gibbs said, "We didn't make the plays we should make because they played great. Now, everybody in the division is even again."
"If we had played our game, we'd be celebrating here right now," Walker said. "Of course, it all will be decided in December. Just like it always is."