ST. LOUIS, DEC. 6 -- By now, we all know the script. Terrible first half. No running game. Almost no passing game. The Washington Redskins fall behind at halftime. Fans throughout the Washington area wonder: What is going on here? And then . . .
And then, the Redskins rallied for three touchdowns in the third quarter to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals, 34-17, this afternoon and win the NFC Eastern Division title for the first time since 1984.
Everything that happened in front of 31,324 drenched spectators at Busch Stadium was supposed to happen. The Cardinals (5-7), who had won three of their last four games, jumped to a 14-10 halftime lead. St. Louis quarterback Neil Lomax threw two touchdown passes; Washington quarterback Jay Schroeder threw one, a spectacular, 84-yarder to Gary Clark. But the Redskins (9-3), as is their custom, roared right back to win with ease. With a halftime nudge from agitated Coach Joe Gibbs, they finally figured out how to do something they used to be very good at -- running the football -- and that was that.
The Redskins cheered their fourth division title in Gibbs' seven seasons after the game, but this certainly was no surprise. It was virtually assured that this team would make the playoffs when its strike replacement team went 3-0, allowing the regulars to return with a 4-1 record.
Other than fighting for home-field advantage with San Francisco and Chicago or Minnesota, the Redskins really won't play a game that matters in their future until the playoffs the weekend of Jan. 9-10. This is particularly important because another of their stars was injured today.
Wide receiver Art Monk suffered a partial tear of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in the second half and did not return to the game. He will be examined by Dr. Charles Jackson today to see how much fluid or blood has gathered in the knee.
This is the fourth time a Redskins starter has suffered a tear in the medial collateral ligament this season: defensive end Dexter Manley, tackle Mark May and center Russ Grimm are the others. Each missed at least four weeks.
"It does not feel as bad as the others felt," Jackson said of Monk's injury. "I'll know more Monday."
Last week, in a 23-19 win over the New York Giants, the Redskins played well only in the fourth quarter. Today, they expanded their positive play to almost a whole half. (By next week, against Dallas, watch out.)
Today's turnaround took human form and was wearing No. 38. George Rogers, who gained only 20 yards on seven first-half carries, broke out of a slump with 134 yards on 30 rushes. It was just his second 100-yard game this season. Was he relieved? You bet.
"At halftime, was I down? You'd never believe how down I was. I need to run a lot. When I run a lot, I get sweaty. I get into it. I start doing good," Rogers said.
Things were not looking good for the Redskins when St. Louis kicker Jim Gallery connected on a 48-yard field goal after Clark fumbled to give the Cardinals a 17-10 lead. The situation got bleaker for Washington moments later when, on third and two from the St. Louis 44, Schroeder threw to Monk, who dropped the pass, apparently forcing a Washington punt. But, just then, a yellow flag flew. Fingers were being pointed. May was dancing. Defensive end Freddie Joe Nunn had been caught punching May's helmet and St. Louis was penalized 15 yards, giving Washington a first down at the 29.
"We were going at it, and then he punched me right in the helmet," May said, unable to wipe a smile off his face. "I thought about fighting back, but I just walked away and laughed. I danced because I noticed on the game films that he did a little dance after he got a sack. I gave him a little bit of his medicine. It was an easy 15. I'll sacrifice getting hit for 15 yards and a touchdown any day."
The 15 yards were marched off immediately. The touchdown came five plays later. On third down and four at the St. Louis 7, the Cardinals were thinking the Redskins would pass. Schroeder dropped back, but then stuck the ball under his arm and ran, stepping into the end zone to tie the game with 6:11 to play in the third quarter. The quarterback draw is a play run most often by Denver's John Elway. Gibbs decided to install it in the Redskins' offensive repertoire at halftime after quarterbacks coach Jerry Rhome suggested it from his press box perch.
"They had a three-man rush and doubled everybody, so we thought it would work," Gibbs said.
Moments later, the Redskins got an unexpected lift from their special teams when someone -- three players think it might have been them -- caused St. Louis returner Derrick McAdoo to fumble the kickoff, and Dennis Woodberry recovered at the Cardinals 17.
For the first time this season, Rogers did for the Redskins what John Riggins used to do. He ran right for eight yards, up the middle for three and to the left for the final six and a touchdown with 4:28 left in the quarter. In less than two minutes, the game completely turned.
"You get the feeling we're on to something great, if we can only tap it now," said defensive end Charles Mann.
The Redskins added their final touchdown the next time they had the ball. A leaping, 54-yard fingertip catch by wide receiver Ricky Sanders took Washington to the Cardinals 10. On first down, H-back Clint Didier ran a slant and caught an apparent touchdown pass. But a holding penalty pushed the ball back to the 20.
After an incompletion and a one-yard run by Keith Griffin, it was third and 19. Schroeder again threw to Didier, who was running down the middle of the field, covered man-to-man by linebacker Anthony Bell. Coverage like that on a target Didier's size makes Schroeder's eyes bulge. Pass. Catch. Touchdown. Washington led, 31-17.
Ali Haji-Sheikh added a 40-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. St. Louis had an apparent touchdown reception by Stump Mitchell with 2:33 left called back after instant-replay review. It was then that Rogers was called upon to run out the clock, eating up 37 yards on three rushes.
The first half was another story. Gallery missed field goals of 40 and 39 yards; otherwise, the Cardinals would have held a 10-point lead at halftime. Schroeder and Clark struck first on their 84-yard pass and run, the longest pass play of Schroeder's three-year career. He faked to Rogers, then stepped back and heaved the football 61 yards to Clark, who caught it in step at the St. Louis 33 and ran away from cornerback Johnny Holloway into the end zone.
Schroeder completed just four more passes in the first half for 15 total yards as nothing much else the Redskins tried worked. Haji-Sheikh kicked a 22-yard field goal after Brian Davis recovered a Cardinals fumble for a 10-0 lead. But the Cardinals rallied for two second-quarter touchdowns on a three-yard catch by Mitchell and a four-yard reception by J.T. Smith.
Lomax threw for 161 yards in the first half and Mitchell ran for 85. These were items Gibbs said he "pointed out" at halftime.
The players listened. Lomax managed just 80 additional yards on seven completions after halftime, and Mitchell was held to 16 second-half yards.
In addition to Monk's injury, defensive tackle Dean Hamel strained his left hamstring and running back Keith Griffin strained his left thigh.