After the Washington Redskins allowed the Philadelphia Eagles to tie the score with 1 minute 52 seconds remaining yesterday at FedEx Field, the sequence of events that followed was not for the faint of heart.
Brian Mitchell ripped off a 45-yard return on the ensuing kickoff to jump-start the Redskins' final drive. But with five seconds left, place kicker Brett Conway missed a 28-yard field goal, forcing overtime in a game the Redskins needed to win to preserve a one-game lead in the NFC East.
The Redskins won the coin toss, got an equally spectacular 48-yard kickoff return by James Thrash to the Eagles 46 and worked the ball to the 1 before running back Stephen Davis was stopped for a one-yard loss on second down. Coach Norv Turner called on Conway again, on third down, building in a one-play margin of error that proved to be critical when quarterback Brad Johnson fumbled the snap, but fell on the ball at the 9.
This time, Conway's kick was good from 27 yards 4:34 into overtime for a 20-17 victory, leaving the crowd of 74,741 limp, happy and wondering how the home team could have allowed the Eagles to turn this contest into such a nail-biter.
The win kept the Redskins (7-4) atop the NFC East standings, aided by Arizona's 34-24 victory over the New York Giants. While the Cardinals and Giants both are 5-6, lurking just one game back are the Dallas Cowboys (6-5), whose sweep of the Redskins this season ensures they would trump Washington for the division title in the event the teams finish the regular season tied.
But the feeling among the Redskins afterward was unabashedly upbeat. In staving off two 91-yard touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, the Redskins knew they had won a close game they easily could have lost.
"I think our guys are growing up," Turner said. "I think no matter what happens, they feel they have a chance to win the football game."
Added fullback Larry Centers, who led all receivers with nine catches: "The way we won this game was even more of a plus for us. Having to fight throughout a ballgame, it builds character and resiliency."
It was two distinct games, really, before the clock even started ticking in overtime.
Through the first half, the Redskins rectified all they had done wrong in their 35-28 loss to the Eagles two weeks ago. The defense stopped running back Duce Staley, and the offense didn't turn over the ball, while more than doubling the net yardage amassed by the Eagles (71 for Philadelphia, 157 for the Redskins). But after the Redskins took a 17-3 lead early in the third quarter, their defense began to wither, allowing the Eagles the two long scoring drives in the fourth quarter.
The first of those series took 18 plays and consumed 8:21, capped by rookie quarterback Donovan McNabb's three-yard touchdown pass to tight end Luther Broughton, open in the end zone, to cut the Redskins' lead to 17-10.
McNabb found Broughton again to tie the game with 1:52 left. McNabb scrambled 26 yards, faking out safety Sam Shade to put the Eagles in Redskins territory. Six plays later, Broughton turned a routine catch into a 26-yard touchdown reception by blowing past linebacker Greg Jones and safety Leomont Evans, then knocking down cornerback Darrell Green and linebacker Shawn Barber as he plowed into the end zone.
"We shut down [Staley]," Redskins defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson said. "But we forgot about their other threat, which was McNabb. He definitely kept them in it."
After losing the heartbreaker in Philadelphia, in which the Redskins outplayed the Eagles by most statistical measures, Turner opted for a more conservative game plan yesterday. While it was short on explosive plays downfield (the longest reception was for 20 yards), it moved the ball just the same via mid-range, high-percentage throws.
The Eagles did a terrific job containing Davis by stacking extra bodies on the line. Davis was held to just 61 yards on 24 carries (for a 2.5-yard average), but scored his 16th touchdown of the season in the third quarter.
With Davis's production limited, extra pressure was put on the passing game. Johnson completed 25 of 36 throws for 218 yards, including one touchdown and one interception.
Johnson's touchdown strike was a show within the show. With the Redskins leading 3-0, Johnson fired a pass at tight end Stephen Alexander in the end zone, but it hit Eagles free safety Brian Dawkins first, then caromed off Alexander's chest and into the hands of fullback Mike Sellers.
The Redskins' lead and passing-game statistics would have been more impressive, however, had wide receiver Albert Connell not made three key mistakes. With 27 seconds left in the first half, Johnson threw a four-yard pass to Connell near the left sideline. Instead of going out of bounds to stop the clock, Connell cut toward the middle of the field as the clock ticked on. He committed the same mistake on the next play with nine seconds left, presumably hoping to sprint into the end zone for the score. Instead, he was brought down at the Eagles 18, and the half expired.
"When you make a two-minute drive you have to get out of bounds," Johnson said. "It's something we talk about from Day One. It's just something A.C. knows, and he should have gotten out of bounds. A.C. had an excellent day today. That was a mistake that cost us."
Connell also dropped a pass in the third period that would have given the Redskins an important first down and might have made it more difficult for Philadelphia to come back.
After the Eagles had tied the score, Mitchell returned the kickoff up the right sideline to the Eagles 36. Then he carried another 14 yards on first down and the Redskins worked the ball to the Eagles 9 with only seconds left. Conway's field-goal attempt was kicked with such authority that it wasn't until officials waved their arms horizontally that fans realized it had sailed wide right.
"It was a good snap," Conway said. "It was a good hold. I had the wind at my back. I thought I hit it good."
In overtime, Thrash and Mitchell reversed roles. With Mitchell blocking, Thrash returned the kickoff 48 yards.
His team in scoring range, Turner called for the field goal unit on third down rather than fourth, mindful of the possibility of a fumbled snap. The snap was good, but Johnson, a steady holder with years of experience, bobbled the ball, immediately fell on it and was credited with a fumble for a seven-yard loss.
The victory in hand, Turner managed to joke about the tense moment. "We thought we might be a little too close," Turner said of the final field goal, "so Brad took a seven-yard loss on a third-down play so we could get a little better angle, and we were able to make it."
CAPTION: Stephen Davis rolls in from the 1 for his 16th touchdown of the season to help Redskins build a 17-3 lead.
CAPTION: Redskins quarterback Brad Johnson (25 of 36, 218 yards) feels crunch of Eagles' Mike Mamula, left, and Brian Dawkins during furious fourth quarter.