After a promising first half, a handful of critical, second-half plays spelled defeat for the Washington Redskins in Saturday's 14-13 NFC semifinal loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Coach Norv Turner said yesterday.
The big plays started with safety John Lynch's third-quarter interception of quarterback Brad Johnson and ended with Dan Turk's botched snap that doomed a 52-yard field goal attempt with 1 minute 17 seconds remaining that could have won the game.
Injuries also hurt the Redskins' cause. Johnson played throughout the second half with a strained left groin muscle, and running back Stephen Davis left the game with a twisted knee, which added to pain from his sprained left ankle. Those injuries, according to team sources, could have limited both players next week, had the Redskins advanced to the NFC championship game against St. Louis.
"I thought he had a couple good runs and looked good early in the game last night," Turner said of Davis yesterday. "But it was just too much to ask of him. The ankle got real sore there in the third quarter. Brad's groin was real sore, and we were a little bit limited."
Asked about the severity of Johnson's injury, Turner said: "Watching the film, it doesn't appear to limit him a lot. But I think psychologically, he was real quick with a couple decisions and a couple throws."
Johnson was injured in the second quarter but did not miss a snap.
The Redskins played a smart, crisp first half, taking a 3-0 lead. But as Tampa Bay's defense clamped down, the offense sputtered late in the second half and the Redskins saw a 13-0 lead evaporate.
The handful of offensive players at Redskin Park yesterday praised the defense, which held the Buccaneers to 44 rushing yards, and found fault with themselves. The Redskins' offense compiled just 157 net yards, compared to its season average of 372.8. It was the first game all season in which the offense failed to score a touchdown.
"We played bad enough that it could have been another Miami-Jacksonville game," said center Cory Raymer of the Jaguars' 62-7 blowout. "But the defense was what kept us in it."
The Redskins took a 10-0 lead with Brian Mitchell's 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Raymer said he felt good at 13-0, but wanted one more score for safety's sake. "A touchdown would have been great, but a field goal, even . . ." Raymer said.
When the momentum shifted, it shifted for good.
Lynch intercepted a pass meant for wideout Albert Connell. Later, Redskins safety Leomont Evans was called for pass interference, which advanced the Buccaneers' drive 31 yards, and a two-yard run by Mike Alstott made it 13-7 with just over two minutes left in the third quarter. The Redskins managed just 12 yards of offense in the quarter and failed to get a first down.
In the fourth quarter, the Redskins' fortunes turned on two fumble recoveries, neither of which went their way. After being sacked for a 12-yard loss early in the fourth quarter, Johnson fumbled. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp recovered, giving the Buccaneers the ball at the Redskins 32.
It looked as if the Redskins would negate the damage when linebacker Shawn Barber sacked quarterback Shaun King three plays later, dislodging the ball. But before a Redskins defender could get the ball, running back Warrick Dunn scooped it up and advanced it 13 yards for a critical first down. The Buccaneers capped the drive with the go-ahead touchdown, a one-yard pass to John Davis.
"Both defenses were outstanding," Turner said. "Both offenses worked awfully hard to do what they could. A game like that is going to come down to a few plays, and the turnovers in the second half obviously were critical. We had an opportunity to get a turnover from them. Instead, they picked it up and ran with it."
Turner explained his thinking on the Redskins' final possession without second-guessing it.
With Washington trailing 14-13 with less than three minutes left, fullback Larry Centers gained seven yards on a draw play up the middle to take the Redskins to Tampa Bay's 33.
On second and three, Turner expected a blitz, called for maximum protection and sent out three receivers. Centers was open on a high-percentage route in the flat. Johnson threw instead to Michael Westbrook, lurking on the sideline at the 20.
"Brad, I thought, made a good decision," Turner said. "He had Michael Westbrook one-on-one on the corner. Michael is open on the 20-yard line. The ball got away from him. He threw it high. It's a ball that Brad has completed a large number of times. And if he completes it, you're on the 20-yard line."
The Redskins ran Skip Hicks on third and three, but came up empty-handed when the Buccaneers blitzed. That brought up Conway for the 52-yard field goal attempt that was doomed by the botched snap.
"The second-down pass, you've got a chance of getting to the 20," Turner said. "The third down, at that point I didn't want to take a sack and completely take us out of the field goal. You can pop a run against the blitz and get a big play. I'll be honest with you: Every game, whether you win or lose, there are three or four calls you look at, you wince a little bit and say, 'God, if we had run the ball there or thrown it there. . . . '
"My thoughts there were, if we could get in field-goal range, get a field goal and make it 16, it would have been awfully tough for them to come back."
Turk, the long-snapper, didn't accompany the team on the flight home. For the rest, it was a quiet ride. "Everybody was still--maybe not dumbfounded--but maybe [had] a little sick feeling in their stomach," Raymer said.
Added tight end Stephen Alexander: "Everybody knew that we're done. We don't get to suit it up next week."