There was no indication the Washington Redskins were capable of scoring a touchdown, much less staging a miracle comeback and ending the curse of the Dallas Cowboys, 14-13. Trailing by 13 points, still looking for the first trip to the end zone this season and facing an offensive crisis, quarterback Mark Brunell heaved a pretty pass on fourth and 15 from the Dallas 39-yard line, hitting Santana Moss in stride with less than four minutes to play.
It was just the beginning. Suddenly, Dallas's lead was six, and when a holding penalty negated the Cowboys' apparent first down a minute later, it became clear the Redskins would get the ball back at least one more time. Their final drive began with 2 minutes 52 seconds left, and no timeouts, and on the second play Brunell put everything he had into the ball, unleashing a 70-yard bomb over the middle. Moss outraced cornerback Aaron Glenn and safety Roy Williams and did not stop running until he hit the wall behind the end zone.
Nine months after enduring a horrendous loss on a last-second bomb in that same end of the field, the Redskins reached ecstasy there, silencing a sellout crowd. Their streak of nine straight losses at Texas Stadium was snapped.
"That's one of the great moments for me," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "I can tell you that."
Washington had not scored a touchdown for the first 116 minutes of the season, then, shockingly, produced two huge strikes in 71 seconds. After losing 14 of their last 15 against the Cowboys, the Redskins (2-0) had finally snatched a victory from Dallas; last December it was Washington's clock management that doomed its ability to hold a late lead, and tonight the same fate befell its rivals.
"We just hung in there," Moss said during a postgame television interview, "and knew all we needed was a couple of plays to turn this game around."
The Cowboys had one more chance to salvage this evening -- an occasion on which former stars Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith were honored at halftime -- and it looked as if they would do just that. Tyson Thompson took a kickoff back to the Washington 48 -- rookie kicker Nick Novak was forced to intervene between him and a chance to score. Safety Sean Taylor, who was burned on the game-winning touchdown here last December, broke up a third down pass, and on fourth and four, cornerback Walt Harris, who had a heroic game, kept the Cowboys a yard from getting where they needed to go.
Dallas had controlled the tempo of this game, taking a 10-0 lead on a 70-yard flea flicker, continually sacking Brunell. Washington again turned the ball over and committed penalties, but found a way to earn a memorable win despite all of it, and heads into the bye week on an emotional high, when for so long, it seemed that the Cowboys would be the victors. But then everything changed.
"When it came down to the end of the game they kind of got soft," wide receiver David Patten said of the Cowboys' late defensive coverage, "because they thought we were out of the game."
Despite their inability to accrue yardage the Redskins trailed by just a field goal coming out of halftime, then quarterback Drew Bledsoe executed the flea-flicker, spotting Terry Glenn streaking down the right side with Taylor and cornerback Shawn Springs caught hopelessly behind. Jose Cortez added a 41-yard field goal to pad the lead in the fourth quarter, but it was not enough.
Washington needed a complete reversal, and got it.
This first half in Dallas was as ugly as anything from 2004, perhaps worse. The turnovers lingered -- a fumble and an interception, the offensive line proved as willing as ever to commit false-start and holding penalties. That drastic Week 1 quarterback change, from Patrick Ramsey to veteran Brunell, did nothing to engender a resurgence. For all of the talk of an improved downfield attack, with speedy new wide receivers Moss and Patten, it had yet to manifest on the field.
Washington could not move the ball on the ground or through the air, forcing the defense to spend an inordinate amount of time on the field in the staggering heat here, while the Cowboys controlled the clock (nearly 10 minutes of the first quarter) and dominated field position. The Redskins gained just five first downs in the first half, and mustered a grand total of 85 yards of offense on 28 plays (a shocking average of three yards per play). Twice in the half, drives died with Brunell sacked, once negating any chance for a field goal.
They repeatedly began drives inside their 20-yard line. The offensive line succumbed to procedural penalties and repeatedly left Brunell to dangle amid blitzing linebackers. It appeared Washington's offense could not possibly get worse after last season, but it seemed to be regressing. The 15 points per game, the 30th ranked attack, the puny five yards per passing attempt.
The Redskins, 4-15 against the NFC East since 2002, had one play for more than 10 yards in the opening 30 minutes -- Brunell mustered 56 yards passing and the two times he had receivers open deep he underthrew Moss and Patten, with cornerback Anthony Henry breaking up both plays. With no semblance of a passing game, running back Clinton Portis (52 yards) was easily contained.
But Dallas was not much better. Cortez missed a 31-yard field goal, and when Brunell was intercepted in Washington territory, all the Cowboys could produce was a field goal. They led 3-0 at the half, and the Redskins were still a few hours away from a most improbable win.
"We didn't play our best ball," said Joe Bugel, assistant coach-offense, "but we just played with a lot of heart."