As midnight approached, an unheralded defensive back saved the game, calmly intercepting a pass near the goal line on fourth down with only 90 seconds left and the Philadelphia Eagles primed to tie the score. Safety Ryan Clark, whom almost no one figured would make the Washington Redskins' roster last year, pulled in Donovan McNabb's errant pass to ensure a 17-10 victory at FedEx Field, making him the last of a string of relative unknowns to lead the club to victory.
"When I made that play," Clark said, "We all made that play."
He was speaking of reserve running back Ladell Betts, who returned a kickoff 40 yards to trigger the game-winning drive, then corralled a 26-yard reception three plays later. And he meant guard Derrick Dockery, the least experienced of Washington's offensive linemen, who recovered a fumble at the 6-yard line on that same third-quarter possession, allowing Clinton Portis to score the clinching touchdown. H-back Mike Sellers, who played one year of junior college football and spent two stints in the CFL, had starred, too, scoring his first NFL rushing touchdown and making two key late receptions. Defensive end Phillip Daniels, whose sprained ankle throbbed on every play, made a vital contribution as well, alertly reading McNabb's fake spike as the first half expired, then sacking him to prevent a scoring opportunity.
The Redskins (5-3) and Eagles (4-4) were fighting to remain out of the NFC East cellar, eager to show their blowout defeats from last weekend were an aberration, hoping to renew faith that a playoff run was still in their future. For Philadelphia, even more was at stake, with the suspension of controversial wide receiver Terrell Owens threatening to cause the team to unravel, and it took nearly the entirety of the Redskins' roster to come away with this victory, doing so with more guts than glamour. Washington ran for less than 80 yards as a team and had no pass over 26 yards, but received invaluable and less tangible contributions on offense, defense and special teams.
"It just seemed like there was a guy here or guy there who made great plays," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "It wasn't any one person, it was just everybody contributing."
The Redskins (4-0 at home; 2-1 in the NFC East) are tied with Dallas in the division, one game behind first-place New York at the midpoint of the season, while the Eagles face an uphill climb if they are to reach the NFC Championship Game for a fifth straight year. The Redskins, crushed 36-0 last week, snapped a seven-game losing streak to their I-95 rivals, and beat the Eagles at home for the first time since 1999.
Philadelphia, held to only 45 rushing yards, trailed 10-7 entering the second half -- that lead could have been significantly more if not for quarterback Mark Brunell's fumble just before halftime -- and tied the game on David Akers's 34-yard field goal midway through the third quarter. (Akers had missed the previous four games with a hamstring injury.)
Betts surged 40 yards on the ensuing kickoff return -- "All I remember is breaking a tackle and there were two guys left to beat," Betts said -- then, on third and 11 at midfield he raced out of the backfield in a shotgun formation, split linebacker Jeremiah Trotter and cornerback Matt Ware over the middle and hauled in a pass for 26 yards. H-back Chris Cooley, who had the most productive game of his career (seven catches for 85 yards), gained 13 yards on the next play before fumbling at the 6. Dockery was following the play all along, and fell on it.
"Coaches always say break on the ball," Dockery said. "I was just in the right place at the right time."
Portis scored on the next play for a 17-10 lead, and the Eagles came within seven yards of tying the game, with their long drive ended with McNabb's wobbling pass in Clark's arms after successive incompletions. "When it hit me in the chest," Clark said, "I just figured I'd go ahead and catch it."
The Redskins gave up a big play in the first quarter, then buckled down. Rookie Reggie Brown, replacing Owens in the starting lineup, took a slant 56 yards for his first touchdown, marking the fifth straight game in which the Redskins had conceded a play of 50 yards or more. Washington countered on the following drive. Wide receiver Santana Moss, silenced by the Giants, took a slant 20 yards, then Cooley went across the middle from the opposite side for 18 yards on the next play before John Hall connected from 24 yards on his first field goal since injuring his right quadriceps in Week 1. The Redskins went ahead 10-7 in the second quarter, charging 79 yards on five plays.
Portis, who passed the 5,000-yard rushing mark last night, rumbled for 15 yards to open the drive and Cooley sustained it on third and four, darting to his left, then cutting hard the other way to pick up another 16 yards. Cooley's timing was impeccable; the Redskins needed another target to emerge with Moss drawing so much attention, and there was balance in the passing game again.
Wide receiver David Patten, who has been eager to make an impact after leaving champion New England as a free agent, streaked down the right sideline on the following play, and as he waited for Brunell's pass to come down, cornerback Lito Sheppard interfered with him. The ball was spotted at the 1 and Sellers, a 280-pound wrecking ball, was granted his first carry since 2000, and the second rush of his NFL career. Sellers, who has been campaigning for this run since re-signing with the Redskins in 2004, bulled ahead and stretched out, breaking the plane of the goal line before losing control of the ball. Video replay upheld the touchdown -- Sellers's fifth overall this season and the first rushing score of his career (78 games) -- and the Redskins led, 10-7.
"I've been in their [the coaches'] ear for a while and they finally took me up on it," Sellers said.
The Redskins were back in field goal position in the final minute of the first half, but linebacker Trent Cole was able to reach around tackle Chris Samuels to strip Brunell, and the Eagles recovered. McNabb whipped two passes downfield and Philadelphia was at the Washington 24 with 28 seconds remaining, but never attempted a kick.
The quarterback, throwing for 304 yards despite a sports hernia, faked a spike, and looked for an open receiver, but the defense read the play perfectly. Daniels knocked him for a seven-yard loss, the Eagles were out of timeouts (losing one on a replay challenge), and the Redskins led by three at the half.
"I always come off the ball in those situations because I know that play is there," Daniels said. "I knew I had it when I came off the ball. I played in some pain, but it was all worth it. I'll do anything for my teammates, whatever it takes to win."