The Washington Redskins were on the verge of another miracle comeback, two points from sustaining their undefeated dream in the chilly autumn rain, when reality finally intervened on Sunday. All of the hallmarks of this plucky team were on display -- a wacky final-minute drive, controversial officiating calls, a desperation touchdown -- but for once the Redskins came up short.
After plowing 94 yards to score their second touchdown, the Redskins required a two-point conversion to tie the Denver Broncos with 69 seconds to play. Quarterback Mark Brunell was flanked in the shotgun formation by running back Clinton Portis and H-back Chris Cooley, and Brunell faked a handoff to Portis; while the back cut to his right, the passer rolled to his left.
Wide receiver David Patten was streaking across the back of the end zone, wide open, but Brunell's pass never got that far. Linebacker Ian Gold tipped the ball away, the Broncos won, 21-19, at Invesco Field at Mile High and the Redskins (3-1) lost for the first time since last December.
"It was straight-up luck," Patten said of the game-deciding sequence. Gold "just threw his arms up and he hit the ball. He just happened to be Johnny on the spot. It was a well-executed play. I came scot-free across the middle. We won three games like that, and sometimes those games go the other way."
The Redskins appeared beaten after Denver running back Tatum Bell scorched them on a 55-yard touchdown run for a 21-10 lead in the third quarter, but Washington had more fourth-quarter magic to conjure. Linebacker Chris Clemons blocked a punt in the fourth quarter, setting up rookie Nick Novak's 36-yard field goal -- the youngster figured prominently in another close game -- and then Washington took over again with less than five minutes to play, marching 13 plays for a score. A defensive holding penalty by Denver on fourth and 10 helped, and Brunell (30 of 53 for 322 yards and two touchdowns) hit Cooley as he flopped across the goal line, forcing the conversion attempt.
After beating Chicago without scoring a touchdown, shocking Dallas with two long, late touchdowns in 71 seconds and overcoming Seattle in overtime last week, there was every reason to believe the Redskins would pull this one out. But this time, they could not overcome their miscues -- losing the turnover battle for a fourth straight week, allowing two lengthy touchdown runs, having a field goal blocked for the second straight week, suffering ill-timed penalties -- and a controversial replay decision that negated a safety after it was ruled that Denver quarterback Jake Plummer had thrown an incomplete pass and not fumbled into the end zone.
"It was a big deal," a terse Coach Joe Gibbs said of that two-point swing in a game in which the Redskins had 447 total yards to Denver's 257.
For the second straight week, the Redskins dictated play in the first quarter but had no lead to show for it. Again, they held the ball for more than 10 minutes, and Brunell was superior (10 of 11 for 86 yards and a touchdown in the quarter), yet the game was tied at 7. Portis, a former Bronco who was traded to Washington for star cornerback Champ Bailey before the 2004 season and booed throughout the day, failed to grasp a handoff in the rain, and Denver pounced on the fumble at the Washington 43 and scored four plays later.
"We had enough mistakes to actually go out and lose this game." Portis (20 carries for 103 yards) said. "We hurt ourselves."
Bell, one of Portis's replacements here, took a pitch to the left on fourth and one from the 34, danced around defensive end Phillip Daniels, who lunged and missed in the backfield, and raced past linebacker Warrick Holdman, who could not reach the runner coming off a block. The Redskins -- the NFC's best against the run in 2004 -- allowed a run of 34 yards for the second straight week; no back took a carry longer than 26 yards in the preceding 18 games.
"I pretty much called that play out," middle linebacker Lemar Marshall said. "It's wasn't [a] shock they ran that, but they made plays when they had to."
"I just cut back, used my vision and it was a footrace from there," Bell said.
Washington answered on the ensuing drive with clinical precision, moving 72 yards on 13 plays, and taking nearly eight minutes to do so. Brunell went 7 for 7 on the sojourn, finding five receivers in the process. Patten's 38-yard touchdown catch was negated by offensive pass interference, and a holding penalty shorted Portis's six-yard run. The Redskins again could not run the ball into the end zone from a few yards out -- they do not have a rushing touchdown all season and Portis has none in his last six games overall -- but H-back Mike Sellers ended up catching a touchdown for the second straight week, this time from two yards out (he had not scored previously since 2001).
Denver responded on its next possession to go up 14-7. Tight end Jeb Putzier made the big play, grabbing a 31-yard pass to the 9, with Marshall unable to stay with him. Top cornerback Shawn Springs had to leave the game after aggravating a shin injury late in the first quarter, and the Broncos eyed his replacement, Ade Jimoh, in the end zone, with Ashley Lelie out-jumping him on a lob (Jimoh, on the team primarily for special teams, played quite well after that).
Novak cut the lead to 14-10 late in the second quarter with a 34-yard field goal, and he could have made it 14-13 at the half, when his 53-yard attempt was good, but Sellers's false start preceded the snap, and the Broncos led by four entering the second half. The game morphed into a slugfest, with both coaches taking a conservative approach, and the Redskins' ruing several outcomes.
Washington thought it slashed the deficit again, this time to 14-12 early in the third quarter, when Plummer followed through, lost control of the ball, then recovered and was sacked by Jimoh. Replay reversed the safety, however, and Denver punted instead. A few minutes later, the Redskins had an opportunity to pull within one point, but Novak's 38-yard attempt was blocked ("It felt good coming off my foot," Novak said).
Denver got the ball at its 40 after Al Wilson recovered the block, and Bell burst forth again on a third and five. The Broncos ran their bread-and-butter stretch play: Bell (12 carries for 127 yards) headed off right tackle then cut back through a hole; Marshall could not reach him, linebacker Marcus Washington was knocked aside by a perfect block and safety Matt Bowen dived in vain to grab Bell by the back as he streaked down the sideline for 55 yards, with missed tackles undoing the Redskins.
"Normally, we take those plays away," said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense. "We cannot allow those long runs on defense."
Still, there would be another wild finish. But after winning three times by a total of six points, victory was not to be.
"With the way were playing right now, I feel we're going to win every time," Cooley said. "I feel like we'll always come up with a big play to get a win. Patten was open. We were close."