A memorable day for the Washington Redskins came to a fittingly emotional ending.
After events elsewhere combined to hand them their first playoff berth in seven years, the Redskins overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat the San Francisco 49ers, 26-20, in overtime tonight at 3Com Park. Quarterback Brad Johnson capped a brilliant performance with a 33-yard touchdown pass to fullback Larry Centers two minutes into the extra session to give the Redskins their first NFC East title since the 1991 season.
"It was a great game," Redskins Coach Norv Turner said in the team's jubilant locker room. "I told our guys at halftime we didn't play well in the first half, and the second half would define what this team is. I think we defined it pretty well. We've been in this situation before and come up short, but we didn't come up short tonight."
Team owner Daniel M. Snyder presented Turner with a game ball and praised Turner and the team's players as he drank champagne in the visiting owners' box late tonight. Snyder has left little doubt that he plans to retain Turner for next season, telling associates he will make good on his promise that a playoff appearance would save Turner's job.
"The players and the coaches showed they have true Washington Redskin hearts," Snyder said.
The Redskins (9-6) will host at least a first-round playoff game, and could get a first-round bye and host a second-round game if they beat the Miami Dolphins in their regular season finale next Sunday at FedEx Field. For that to happen, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would have to lose next weekend and the Minnesota Vikings would have to lose or tie. The Redskins will make their first playoff appearance since the 1992 season, and their first under Turner.
Losses by the Carolina Panthers and Green Bay Packers earlier today clinched a playoff spot for the Redskins. They then spent the entire evening trailing in what might have been wide receiver Jerry Rice's final home game for the 49ers.
The Redskins started Skip Hicks at running back in place of Stephen Davis, who was on the team's inactive list because of a sprained left ankle. But Johnson threw for a team-record 471 yards and rallied the Redskins from a 20-10 deficit in the fourth quarter.
"This is a great feeling," said Johnson, who completed 32 of his 47 throws and broke Sammy Baugh's 51-year-old Redskins record for passing yards in a game. "I haven't been here the last six years, but I wanted to be part of helping this team make it to the next level. We could have let down tonight after the first half, but we kept battling."
Said Hicks: "It feels great to get into the playoffs as the division champion. We were going to go anyway, but it's better this way."
Johnson had a 65-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Michael Westbrook in the second quarter. But the 49ers (4-11) had gotten a four-yard touchdown run by Charlie Garner in the first quarter and led 13-7 at halftime. They made it 20-10 on a five-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jeff Garcia to wideout J.J. Stokes late in the third quarter.
The Redskins got even on Johnson's one-yard touchdown sneak with just less than 3 1/2 minutes left in regulation. They got a game-saving defensive play by linebacker Shawn Barber, who forced a fumble as the 49ers maneuvered for a game-winning field goal attempt, then won the coin toss in overtime and needed only four plays to cover 78 yards. Johnson passed to Hicks for 25 and eight yards, and Centers ran for 12 yards.
On the final play, Johnson flicked the ball to Centers in the flat against a 49ers blitz. Centers had nothing but open field in front of him and trotted into the end zone for the victory.
"I couldn't believe how open I was when I turned around," Centers said. "It's a great feeling. That's the biggest play of my career."
The Redskins' playoff drought, which spanned the tenures of head coaches Richie Petitbon and Turner, ended with them on the field for pregame warmups. That's when the Buccaneers completed their win over the Packers, a few hours after the Panthers lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Redskins last appeared in a playoff game on Jan. 9, 1993, when they lost in San Francisco, 20-13, in Joe Gibbs's final game as their coach.
The Redskins didn't get much of a boost from their achievement early on tonight, however. Their offense went three plays and out. And the 49ers immediately went to Rice. Garcia found Rice for 11 yards on third and 10, victimizing veteran cornerback Darrell Green in a matchup of legends.
Rice had two more catches totaling 23 yards--prompting the crowd to chant his name--as the 49ers marched downfield easily on their opening drive. Tight end Greg Clark beat Redskins safety Sam Shade for a catch and a 13-yard gain to the Washington 21-yard line, and a facemask penalty on reserve cornerback Tim Denton got the 49ers to the 9. Garner bulled in from the 4 for a 7-0 San Francisco lead less than nine minutes into the game.
The Redskins' offense stalled on its second possession when San Francisco linebacker Lee Woodall got through unblocked on a third-down blitz and sacked Johnson. But the Redskins got the ball back quickly and victimized the vulnerable San Francisco secondary.
Johnson connected with wide receiver Irving Fryar for 10 yards on third and five to get the Redskins a first down on their 35. The 49ers went after Johnson with a safety blitz, and the Redskins responded with a big play. They picked up the blitz as Westbrook, lined up in the slot to the left of the formation, ran across the field to the right sideline and got behind safety Lance Schulters. Johnson put the throw on target. Westbrook made the catch at the San Francisco 33 and raced to the end zone for his ninth touchdown reception of the season. The pass play was the Redskins' longest of the year.
But the 49ers got field goals on their next two drives to take the lead into the break. Garner ran for 34 yards and caught a 26-yard pass from Garcia to set up Wade Richey's 29-yard field goal 6:35 before the half.
The Redskins got a 24-yard dash from Hicks but had to punt when a third-down pass went through Fryar's arms. The 49ers again turned matters over to Garner, who had 84 yards on 12 first-half carries. He broke free for a 37-yard run to get the 49ers into Redskins territory. Garner ripped off 17 yards for a first down at the 7. But Garner was stopped for a one-yard loss and Garcia threw a pair of incompletions, and Richey connected from 25 yards with 1:38 to play in the half.
The Redskins got a 47-yard completion from Johnson to wide receiver Albert Connell to set up a 47-yard field goal by Brett Conway, getting them to within 13-10 just more than six minutes into the third quarter.
But, again, the defense could not keep the 49ers in check. A third-down holding penalty on reserve cornerback Mark McMillian kept San Francisco's drive going. Garner busted loose for a 40-yard run on the next play. On third down from the 5, Garcia bought himself some time by moving around in the pocket and found Stokes in the back of the end zone. Stokes juggled the ball, but made the catch and got his feet in bounds for a 20-10 advantage with 4:11 to play in the third quarter.
Garcia made a mistake early in the fourth quarter, overthrowing Clark in the middle of the field. Reserve safety Matt Stevens made his team-leading sixth interception of the season for the Redskins, and provided a 10-yard return to give the Washington offense possession at the San Francisco 30.
The Redskins got 11 yards on a first-down pass from Johnson to Centers, but stalled and had to settle for Conway's 34-yard field goal.
The Redskins forced the 49ers to punt, but Johnson threw an interception when his third-down pass bounced off Connell's hands to cornerback Ramos McDonald. The 49ers punted again--getting a bad-bounce 31-yarder by Chad Stanley--and the Redskins went to work.
Johnson hit Connell for 25 yards and Westbrook for 11. On third and 10 from the 31, Fryar made a diving catch at the 11. The officials ruled that the ball had hit the ground, but the call was overturned by instant replay after the Redskins challenged. A Johnson-to-Centers completion got to the 2, Johnson got in from the 1 on a sneak and the extra point tied the score at 20 with 3:28 left.
The 49ers got a 25-yard scramble by Garcia on third and five and were positioning themselves for a game-winning field goal attempt when Barber stripped the ball from rookie running back Terry Jackson. Defensive end Anthony Cook made the recovery at the Redskins 21. The Redskins' final drive of regulation fizzled at the San Francisco 38 on a sack by Bryant Young, and the game went into overtime.
East Is Eden
Of the six times the Redskins have entered the playoffs with the NFC East title or the NFC's best record, they have advanced to the Super Bowl five times:
Year Record Playoff Result
1972 11-3 Lost Super Bowl to Miami, 14-7
1982* 8-1 Won Super Bowl over Miami, 27-17
1983 14-2 Lost Super Bowl to L.A. Raiders, 38-9
1984 11-5 Lost conference semifinals to Chicago, 23-19
1987 11-4 Won Super Bowl over Denver, 42-10
1991 14-2 Won Super Bowl over Buffalo, 37-24
1999 9-6 --
*No division titles were recognized because of the player strike, but Washington had the best record among NFC teams.