PHILADELPHIA, JAN. 5 -- The Washington Redskins, erasing ghosts that seemingly had chased them for three sometimes agonizing seasons, dismantled the Philadelphia Eagles, 20-6, today in the NFC wild-card game before 65,287 at Veterans Stadium.
On a chilly, windless afternoon, the Redskins went into one of the most hostile arenas in football and outplayed and outhustled a team that for the last month or so had looked like the best the NFC could offer.
They got 126 total yards from running back Earnest Byner, a heady performance from quarterback Mark Rypien and a dominating defensive game led by tackle Tim Johnson and cornerbacks Darrell Green and Martin Mayhew.
The day had begun with Coach Joe Gibbs telling his players "to leave everything we have out there on the field. We've worked too hard and prepared too long not to." So at the end, he was almost emotional describing how wide receiver Gary Clark had played despite a sore ankle and knee, offensive tackle Jim Lachey despite a bruised shoulder, and how Rypien and Byner had returned after spraining ankles.
The Redskins also took advantage of probably the biggest reversal in the five years of instant replay late in the first half when they retained possession after cornerback Ben Smith picked up a Byner fumble and returned it 94 yards for an apparent touchdown.
Replays showed the ground had caused the fumble, and after a two-minute review, the Redskins were awarded the ball on the Eagles 6-yard line. Four plays later, Chip Lohmiller's field goal gave the Redskins a 10-6 halftime lead.
The Redskins, 12-3 in the playoffs since Gibbs arrived in 1981, will play either the San Francisco 49ers or New York Giants next week. If the Chicago Bears defeat the New Orleans Saints Sunday, the Redskins will play at Candlestick Park; if New Orleans wins, they'll go to the Meadowlands. They lost once to the 49ers and twice to Giants this season.
The Redskins hadn't played a postseason game since winning Super Bowl XXII almost three years ago, and today's victory came in a season in which they were backed into many corners, especially after losses in Dallas and Indianapolis, and two early losses to the Giants.
"People threw dirt on this team all year," linebacker Monte Coleman said. "But they didn't know we had shovels and would keep digging our way out. I can't put my finger on the exact time, but several weeks ago I realized this team was better than people thought."
Above all the other disappointments of a 10-6 season, there'd been a single rallying point for the Redskins -- a 28-14 loss to the Eagles eight weeks ago on a Monday night. Nine players were hurt in that game and the Eagles taunted them off the field, yelling at one point, "Do you guys need any more body bags?"
The Redskins now refer to that loss as "The Body Bag Game," and even after the sweetest of revenges, they refused to talk about it, saying they'd decided in a players-only meeting Friday night that there would be no I-told-you-so's.
"This is a hard enough game as it is," Clark said. "You'd better not question someone's character unless you're sure of the character you're talking about. This team has character, and hopefully this is just one step."
Instead of pointing at the Eagles, the Redskins pointed at Rypien, who completed 15 of 31 passes for 206 yards and two touchdowns, won his playoff spurs and finally may be laying a long-term claim to the status that has eluded him for so long.
The Redskins pointed to a defense that was absolutely brilliant, sacking Randall Cunningham five times (twice by Johnson), keeping the Eagles out of the end zone, forcing three turnovers and so frustrating Coach Buddy Ryan that he stunned almost everyone by benching Cunningham for a series in the third quarter.
They pointed to Byner and Gerald Riggs, who combined for 94 rushing yards, and they pointed to a superb game plan that reminded them that Gibbs and his staff are one of the NFL's best.
Meanwhile, the Eagles, who had spent much of the week talking about playing the 49ers, have lost three straight first-round playoff games under Ryan.
This may be his last. Owner Norman Braman said Ryan's status will be evaluated in a few days, but sources throughout pro football believe that Ryan needed a victory to keep his job, especially after the incredible decision to bench Cunningham, perhaps the NFL's MVP.
But Ryan was gracious in defeat, something he hasn't always managed in victory, saying: "It's hard to win a game when you don't block anybody. I don't think we were flat. The defense played excellent football. We just didn't get anything done on offense."
That's exactly the way the game was played. The Redskins could very well have been blown out early except for their defense.
"One thing our defense has done all year is not give up points," Gibbs said. "If we don't turn the ball over, teams have trouble scoring on us. Our defense just doesn't let people go a long way to get scores."
That was tested many times early in the game. On Philadelphia's third play, Cunningham stood in the pocket against a monstrous rush and hit tight end Keith Jackson for a 66-yard gain to the Washington 11.
But from there, Heath Sherman (53 yards on 17 carries) gained one, Cunningham missed Thomas Sanders in the end zone and Coleman dropped Cunningham for a 10-yard loss. That forced Roger Ruzek to kick a 37-yard field goal to give the Eagles a 3-0 lead.
A trend had been set. Cunningham finished with relatively poor numbers -- 15 of 29 for 205 yards and one interception -- and he completed only one pass to a wide receiver.
The Redskins' defense was tested a second time early when linebacker Seth Joyner stripped Riggs of the ball, and Wes Hopkins recovered at the Washington 25.
Cunningham hit Jackson for 15. Sherman gained four. Sherman gained one. Then, on third and five, Cunningham threw an incompletion, but Mayhew was called for holding, giving the Eagles first down at the 2.
From there, the Eagles still didn't get in. Markus Koch dropped Sherman for a loss of one. Cunningham was forced to throw away the ball on second down. And on third down, Charles Mann sacked him for an eight-yard loss. Ruzek's 28-yard field goal made it 6-0 with 10:18 left in the half.
That's when things almost came apart. Cornerback Eric Allen intercepted a Rypien pass, and the Eagles had the ball at their 46. But they got nothing and the Redskins finally had their offense jump-started.
From the Washington 32 with 8:24 left in the half, Byner gained one. Rypien threw an incompletion. On third and nine, he hit Art Monk for 28, then Byner in the flat for 23 and Monk for a 16-yard touchdown.
"Great plays by Rip," Gibbs said. "He checked down to the third and fourth receivers. And Art Monk -- he made some great plays in there. He's one of the standup guys on this team. He's one of those guys you count on. He never says two words, but he leads by example and by the way he carries himself."
On the play to Byner, Rypien ran the bootleg and found tight end Don Warren covered. He checked to Clark in the middle, then threw back across the field to Byner, who was the focus of a play fake.
"I couldn't believe he saw me," Byner said. "I think I'm about the ninth receiver on that. Rip looked over and his eyes got the size of quarters. The Eagles pursue so well that you know there's going to be things open downfield. You just don't know if the quarterback will have the time."
With 5:54 left in the half, the Redskins led 7-6. They were driving again with 1:08 to go when Rypien again found Byner (seven catches, 77 yards) open in the flat.
After an 11-yard gain, Smith flipped Byner at the 6, and when Byner hit the turf the ball popped out. Smith picked it up and weaved his way 94 yards for what appeared to be the score that would give the Eagles a 13-7 lead.
It was reviewed and reversed, and three plays later Lohmiller made it 10-6. The Redskins were close to taking control in the third quarter, especially when Ricky Sanders dropped what would have been a 52-yard touchdown pass.
They did take control, but later. While the Eagles got one first down in the third quarter, the Redskins got a 29-yard field goal from Lohmiller to make it 13-6 with 2:29 left.
Then as the quarter ended, they drove 55 yards in five plays to make it 20-6. The big play was a 47-yarder to Clark on third and five. Then on second and goal at the 3, Clark caught the touchdown pass.
"Rip made some great plays," Clark said.
Ryan benched Cunningham for a series before the touchdown and, had any of Jim McMahon's three terrible passes been intercepted, Ryan certainly would be cleaning out his desk tonight.
As it was, the Redskins may have pushed him that direction anyway.
"I felt we'd give it a great effort, but I didn't know if it would be good enough," Gibbs said. "We've got some tough, quality guys and that stood up. No matter what people said about us during the season, we knew things would be decided on the field. Our guys stood up and made a statement about themselves."