The Washington Redskins pushed one of the NFL's best teams to the limit today, but couldn't quite steal a win that could have been their springboard into the playoffs. They ended up not only with a 24-21 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, but also facing the possible loss of running back Stephen Davis to a sprained left ankle and chip fracture.
The Redskins (8-6) played the Colts (12-2) evenly for most of the afternoon and had an opportunity to turn their late comeback bid into a major victory when they recovered an onside kick with 1 minute 24 seconds remaining. They advanced the ball only one yard on their last-gasp drive, however. When quarterback Brad Johnson's fourth-down throw to wide receiver Michael Westbrook fell incomplete with 32 seconds left, the Colts and the crowd of 57,013 at the RCA Dome could begin celebrating an AFC East championship.
The Redskins' only good fortune today was being able to remain alone in first place in the forgiving NFC East because the Dallas Cowboys (7-7) and New York Giants (7-7) also lost. The Cowboys have the tiebreaker advantage over the Redskins by virtue of beating them twice this season. The Redskins beat the Giants twice and would win the division in a two-way tie with New York.
Still, defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson found little solace in the events of the day: "It hurts," he said in a somber postgame locker room. "We can't seem to get the biggest one. We had a chance to win today right down to the last 20 seconds. . . . We're not looking for a pat on the back. We need results."
Davis, the NFL's leading rusher, ran for 70 yards on 14 first-half carries to set a single-season Redskins record with 1,405 yards. But he left the game for good late in the second quarter and is scheduled to undergo an MRI exam on Monday.
"It's disappointing," Redskins Coach Norv Turner said. "Stephen is having a great year. Hopefully he can play the last two games. He was playing awfully well early on today."
The Colts extended their winning streak to 10 games and ensured they will become the 17th team in league history to finish in first place one season after finishing in last place. After going 3-13 last season, they have matched the biggest improvement from one year to the next in NFL history.
"It's been a fast turnaround," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said. "It's definitely come faster than we expected. We knew we'd be a better football team this year, but we didn't know that we'd be this good."
The Colts got the usual big performances from their trio of offensive stars. Manning passed for 298 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Marvin Harrison had nine catches for 117 yards, and rookie running back Edgerrin James rushed for 89 yards to pull within five yards of Davis for the league lead.
But the Redskins had their chances. Their defense hung tough and forced three first-half turnovers, including a fumble by Harrison at the Redskins 3-yard line and an end-zone interception of Manning by linebacker Shawn Barber. The Redskins used Davis to grind out tough yards, got a 48-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to wide receiver Albert Connell and led, 13-10, at intermission.
That's the way the score remained until Manning connected with tight end Ken Dilger for a one-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the fourth quarter. James's two-yard touchdown run with 5:57 to go gave Indianapolis a 24-13 cushion, but the Redskins pulled within three points at the 1:24 mark on a six-yard touchdown run by Brian Mitchell and a two-point conversion pass from Johnson to Westbrook. James Thrash then came up with Brett Conway's high-bouncing onside kick to give the Redskins a first down at their 46.
"I got the perfect bounce," Conway said. "I figured it was going to be my turn next" to attempt a game-tying field goal.
Johnson was sacked on first down by Colts linebacker Cornelius Bennett and fumbled. Guard Tre Johnson made the recovery for the Redskins, but they lost seven yards and precious time. A Johnson-to-Mitchell completion on second down got them eight yards, and they used their final timeout with 42 seconds left. Brad Johnson's third-down pass for Connell was batted down by Colts cornerback Tony Blevins, and his fourth-down throw sailed over Westbrook's head.
"We've got to win big games," Connell said. "We can't keep folding like that. A loss is a loss. It hurts."
Said veteran cornerback Darrell Green: "This was a tremendous opportunity and a winnable game. It's certainly disappointing. . . . We don't want a moral victory. I have a lot of respect for that team [the Colts], but I felt all through the game it was winnable for us."
The Redskins had plenty of could-haves to ponder in the aftermath. Kenard Lang, the demoted defensive end who serves as a tackle on passing downs, was called for two personal fouls for hits on Manning during Colts' touchdown drives.
Conway had first-half field goals of 23 and 32 yards, but a 49-yard attempt was blocked by the Colts' Jason Belser with 10:07 remaining in the game and the Redskins trailing, 17-13. The snap by Dan Turk and the hold by Brad Johnson were fine, but the Redskins' blocking on the left side of their line disintegrated.
James's touchdown run capped the Colts' drive, and Turner was left with a decision to make on the Redskins' next possession. They trailed by 11 points, needing a field goal and a touchdown with a two-point conversion to tie. They faced a fourth-and-four play at the Colts 26, creating the possibility of a 43- or 44-yard field goal try by Conway. Turner opted to try for the first down, and Johnson's completion to Mitchell came up a yard shy with 3:52 remaining.
Turner said he didn't give serious consideration to attempting a field goal.
"We thought we could make the first down, and we also just had a field goal blocked," he said.
Both teams also were left to wonder whether the outcome would have been different if the Redskins hadn't lost Davis, forcing them to turn to backup Skip Hicks in the second half.
"We lucked out when Stephen Davis went out of the game," Bennett said. "But in order to win championship games, you need a little luck."
Westbrook said: "It hurts to lose a game like this because we fought hard and felt we were the better team. We lost a lot of momentum and it made a big difference when we lost Stephen."
The Redskins once more were left in crisis mode.
"As far as heart and dedication, we have that," Mitchell said. "As far as consistency, we don't. . . . We have to win our last two games."
NFC East Playoff Picture
NFC East W L
Redskins 8 6
Giants 7 7
Cowboys 7 7
Cardinals 6 8
Eagles 4 11
If the Redskins win their remaining two games (against the 49ers and Dolphins), they win the NFC East.
If the Redskins and Cowboys finish the regular season tied for first place in the division (if the Redskins win one of two games and the Cowboys win both remaining games), the Cowboys win the NFC East because of their two victories over Washington this season.
If the Redskins and Giants finish tied atop the division (Redskins win one of two games and the Giants win their final two games), the Redskins win the NFC East because of their two victories over New York this season.
If the Redskins, Cowboys and Giants finish tied (each at 8-8), the Redskins would win the NFC East based on a series of tiebreakers if the Cowboys lost to the Giants in the final week of the regular season; or the Cowboys would win the division based on a series of tiebreakers if they beat the Giants in the final week.