The Washington Redskins' season ended in gut-wrenching fashion here this evening when a botched snap on a potential go-ahead field goal in the closing moments allowed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to escape with a 14-13 victory in an NFC semifinal at Raymond James Stadium.
The Redskins squandered a 13-point, third-quarter lead as their usually reliable offense was shut down--particularly in the second half--by Tampa Bay's powerful defense. They still had a chance to win, however, when place kicker Brett Conway lined up for a 52-yard field goal attempt with 1 minute 17 seconds to play.
But center Dan Turk's snap was low and couldn't be handled by holder Brad Johnson, who was tackled as he tried to salvage the play with a pass. The Buccaneers ran out the clock and advanced to next Sunday's NFC championship game, in which they will play at St. Louis or host the Minnesota Vikings.
Said Turk: "I don't know if I short-armed it or what."
"It's very disappointing," Redskins veteran cornerback Darrell Green said. "We did some things, but we did not do enough to win the game. That's the bottom line."
The Redskins won the NFC East title this season and made their first playoff appearance in seven years. They beat the Detroit Lions a week ago in a first-round playoff game and came within a whisker today of reaching the NFC title game. But that was little consolation to them tonight after they suffered the franchise's first postseason defeat in 21 tries when taking a lead into the fourth quarter.
"It's a 50-50 kick with a 50-yard field goal," Johnson said. "But you'd like to have a chance."
For the Redskins, the season began in similar fashion. They wasted a three-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter and lost to the Dallas Cowboys in overtime in their season opener, and Conway never got to attempt a game-winning field goal on the final play of regulation when then-holder Matt Turk dropped his brother's snap.
"I was part of something special this year," wide receiver Michael Westbrook said. "It all ended the way it began in the Dallas game. I thought we might win this one."
The Redskins were carried for much of the day by their defense and special teams, which had been their weak points all season. They sandwiched two field goals by Conway around a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Brian Mitchell--the longest kickoff return in NFL playoff history--and led, 13-0, midway through the third quarter.
But the Buccaneers didn't wilt. Safety John Lynch provided a momentum-changing interception of Johnson, and fullback Mike Alstott's second-effort, two-yard touchdown run got Tampa Bay to 13-7 with a little more than two minutes left in the third quarter.
A fumble by Johnson led to a one-yard touchdown pass from Buccaneers rookie quarterback Shaun King to tight end John Davis with 7 1/2 minutes to play. Tampa Bay's decisive drive was kept alive when running back Warrick Dunn scooped up a fumble by King, who became the first rookie quarterback to win an NFL playoff game since Pat Haden of the Los Angeles Rams in 1976, and ran for a first down.
The Redskins got the ball at their 38-yard line with 3:05 left for their last-gasp drive. They moved to the Tampa Bay 33 by the two-minute warning. But running back Skip Hicks, subbing for Stephen Davis on the final drive, was stuffed for no gain on third and three. Coach Norv Turner turned to Conway, who had drilled field goals of 28 and 48 yards earlier. But Turk's snap bounced perhaps halfway back toward Johnson, and Conway never got a chance to kick the ball.
"That was one time out of probably 10,000," Conway said. ". . . I was real confident. I hit the ball good in [pregame] warmups. I hit the 48-yarder into the wind good. I had the wind at my back. I felt really good."
The game was a duel between one of the NFL's best defenses during the regular season, Tampa Bay's, and one of the worst, Washington's. The Redskins led, 3-0, after a first half in which the two teams combined for more punts (11) than first downs (nine).
In all, there were 18 punts and only 22 first downs in the game. The Redskins limited Alstott to 24 rushing yards on 15 carries, and Tampa Bay's less-than-fearsome offense had 186 total yards. But the Redskins' offense, ranked second in the league during the regular season, managed only 157 yards against the NFL's No. 3 defense. The Redskins had 26 yards in the second half.
"We kind of pulled back a little bit, and you can't do that," wide receiver Albert Connell said. "We should have done more when we had the opportunity. You have to put points on the board. You have to keep going. I wasn't comfortable with 13 points. You can't get lazy. I think guys kind of laid back."
Davis, playing on a sprained left ankle and sprained right knee, managed only 37 yards on 17 carries. Johnson, after completing 12 of his 15 first-half passes, went 8 for 17 in the second half.
"Our guys competed as hard as you could ask them to compete," Turner said. "I don't know how you could ask them to give a better effort. . . . We turned the ball over in the second half. That was the difference. That gave them life."
The Redskins added to their 3-0 halftime advantage immediately after returning to the field. Mitchell had a mostly frustrating season in which it seemed at times that he was not in the club's future plans. But that changed recently, and Mitchell probably sealed his return to the team next season when he fielded Martin Gramatica's second-half kickoff with a foot on his goal line.
Mitchell found a seam and cut to the sideline to his right. He knocked Gramatica to the ground with a stiff arm and outran Don Davis and Alshermond Singleton to the end zone.
"It was a fulfilling end to a lot of stuff I heard this year," Mitchell said. "It's a slap in the face to the people who doubted me."
Green's sixth career postseason interception put the Redskins in position to make it 13-0. King threw high and wide for Jacquez Green, and Darrell Green made a leaping interception to give the Redskins the ball at the Tampa Bay 36. Conway's 48-yard field goal into a driving wind put the Redskins 13 points in front with 8:10 remaining in the third quarter.
The Redskins couldn't apply the finishing touches. Johnson tried to throw deep to Connell along the sideline, but Lynch moved over and made the interception.
"I tried to drill it in there," Johnson said. "I threw it as hard as I could. John Lynch made a great play."
The Buccaneers and their fans seemed re-energized, and Tampa Bay moved 73 yards in six plays for the first offensive touchdown of the game. A 31-yard pass interference call against Redskins safety Leomont Evans, trying to cover Dunn, got the Buccaneers to the Washington 11. Alstott took a swing pass from King and bulled his way to the 2. On second and one, Alstott ran right and found no room, but bounced off the pile and beat defensive end Ndukwe Kalu and linebacker Greg Jones around the corner to get into the end zone.
The absence of veteran left tackle Andy Heck, who suffered a torn hamstring muscle in the Detroit game, haunted the Redskins on the opening possession of the fourth quarter. Buccaneers defensive end Steve White sprinted around fill-in left tackle Kipp Vickers on a second-and-12 play and stripped the ball from Johnson. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp made the recovery, and Tampa Bay had the ball at the Redskins 32.
Redskins defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield sacked King on first down for a 10-yard loss, but King connected with wide receiver Bert Emanuel for 17 yards. On third and three, King was sacked and stripped by linebacker Shawn Barber. Dunn, though, picked up the fumbled ball and ran for a first down.
"Right place, right time," Dunn said.
Alstott ran for five yards and a first down on fourth and one from the 8. On third down from the 1, King faked a handoff to Alstott. Kalu raced in unblocked and nearly had a sack, but King got rid of the ball. John Davis had gotten past Jones, was open and made the catch. Gramatica's extra point put Tampa Bay in front with 7:29 to play.
"Things happen," Mitchell said. "No one can point a finger. That snap wasn't there. But we had a lot of opportunities in that game. It shouldn't have come down to that."