The Washington Redskins walked into the Silverdome today with a chance to improve their playoff chances from possible to probable and show the league they could beat a winning, gritty team under tough conditions. They departed this evening wondering once more about their big-game mettle.
The Detroit Lions' hard-charging defensive line and the din created by 77,693 fans were too much for the Redskins to handle. They unraveled with penalties and turnovers, and the Lions followed the lead of quarterback Gus Frerotte and just-signed kick returner Desmond Howard--both former Redskins--to a 33-17 triumph.
The Lions ended an 18-game losing streak against the Redskins that dated from 1965, and improved their record to 8-4. The Redskins (7-5) hold a one-game lead in the NFC East over the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals.
"Time is running out," Redskins guard Tre Johnson said. "There's a short span left. We have to make a stand. These types of losses--I'm sick of it. I'm sick of going through it."
Frerotte threw for 280 yards and a touchdown, and Howard provided a 68-yard punt return for a touchdown one day after being signed by Detroit to replace the injured Terry Fair. But mostly, the Redskins were undone by their mistakes. They were called for 14 penalties and committed four turnovers. Pressured all afternoon, quarterback Brad Johnson threw two interceptions. He also had a fourth-quarter fumble that was returned 11 yards by Lions defensive tackle Luther Elliss for Detroit's final touchdown.
"I thought our guys competed their butts off," Redskins Coach Norv Turner said. "But you can't be in this type of game and make the errors we made. Some of our errors were forced. . . . Any loss this time of the year is critical."
Said wide receiver Michael Westbrook, whose fourth-quarter fumble led to a Detroit field goal: "We just played stupid football. You can't win like that. . . . I've never seen that many flags on one team in a game. . . ."
Johnson was sacked five times and hit or hurried on numerous occasions. The Lions rarely blitzed, and their defensive front became the first group to overmatch the Redskins' offensive line this season.
"They really played hard," Tre Johnson said of the Lions' defense. "We didn't play as well as it took to win up front. That's probably the worst we've played."
The Redskins tried to prepare for the Silverdome last week by running plays in a tiny gym at Redskin Park with crowd noise blaring from speakers, but didn't handle playing in one of the league's loudest stadiums particularly well.
"The crowd noise really had an effect on us," Brad Johnson said. "We were on our heels all day. . . . This was one of the most physical days I've ever had to go through. That was the best defensive front four we've faced. They really teed off on us."
The Redskins grabbed a 10-3 lead on James Thrash's 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the second quarter, then surrendered 17 consecutive points and were outscored 30-7 the rest of the way. Tailback Stephen Davis was limited to 51 rushing yards, including eight in the second half. The Redskins failed to reach 30 points for a fifth consecutive game after scoring 35 points or more four times in the first seven contests.
"We're just making too many mistakes," said kick returner and running back Brian Mitchell, who led the Redskins with 60 rushing yards. "Their defense played well. A lot of the things were because of them. Their defensive front is their strength. They showed up today."
The Redskins limited the Lions to 31 rushing yards and sacked Frerotte five times. He was shaky early on in his first game against the team that released him during the offseason. But the former seventh-round draft choice who became a Pro Bowler before losing favor with Turner and Redskins made enough good throws--including a 23-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Herman Moore in the second quarter--to win.
"I had some great games in D.C.," said Frerotte, who didn't find out until Friday that he was starting ahead of the injured Charlie Batch. "Now I've had some with the Lions. It's up there in the top couple games in my career."
Turner congratulated Frerotte after the game and said later: "I thought he made the throws he had to make."
The Redskins' opening drive lasted 14 plays and 8 1/2 minutes, but yielded only a 3-0 lead, thanks in part to an officiating mistake that cost them a touchdown.
On a third-and-four play from the Detroit 47-yard line, Johnson was nearly intercepted by safety Mark Carrier. But Carrier couldn't control the ball as he tried to make a diving interception at the 30, and Redskins fullback Larry Centers picked up the carom and ran into the end zone.
The officials at first ruled that the pass was incomplete because the ball had hit the ground. But the Redskins challenged the call, and it was overturned on instant replay. Because the whistle had blown prior to Centers's runback, however, the Redskins didn't get a touchdown.
Instead, they had a first down at the 30 and settled for Brett Conway's 42-yard field goal.
The Lions got even on the first of Jason Hanson's four field goals, a 50-yarder with 6:02 left in the half. But Thrash, who has shared the Redskins' kickoff-return duties with Mitchell in recent weeks, took Hanson's ensuing kick at the 5 and raced to the end zone.
The Lions responded immediately with a four-play touchdown drive. Frerotte and Moore ran a pump-and-go maneuver on rookie cornerback Champ Bailey. Bailey fell for the fake and stumbled as he tried to recover, and Moore caught Frerotte's lob for the touchdown.
The Redskins couldn't get a first down, then had to punt a second time after a holding penalty on Matt Stevens. Howard struck on the redo. The former Redskins first-round draft pick sidestepped Curtis Buckley after catching Matt Turk's punt. Howard got to the sideline to his left and faked Turk to the turf, then coasted to the end zone to put his new team in front for good.
"It's a totally incredible feeling," said Howard, who was cut by the Packers last week.
Hanson's 45-yard field goal five seconds before halftime increased Detroit's lead to 20-10.
Westbrook caught a 39-yard touchdown pass from Johnson, getting the Redskins to 20-17 just over 2 1/2 minutes into the third quarter. But the Redskins were shut down from there, and the Lions pulled away.
Hanson missed a 46-yard field goal try, but later connected on a 37-yarder. Westbrook's fumble led to Hanson's 52-yard field goal, and Detroit provided the final margin with just over eight minutes to play when defensive tackle James Jones sacked Johnson and the ball was grabbed in the air by Elliss, who ran into the end zone. The Redskins' last gasp at a comeback was squelched when Johnson was intercepted by linebacker Stephen Boyd after having an apparent 30-yard touchdown pass to Westbrook overturned by an instant-replay ruling that the receiver was out of bounds.