The difference between winning and losing, exaltation and dejection, and perhaps eventually participating in the playoffs or not, came down to a gutsy coaching decision, a fraction of a yard and a final replay decision. A game of dueling big plays and resilient offenses was ultimately settled when officials upheld a decision that Tampa Bay fullback Mike Alstott had indeed scored from a yard out on a two-point conversion, handing the Washington Redskins a 36-35 defeat on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
The Redskins (5-4) were seconds away from what would have been an improbable comeback win, one that could have lifted them to a tie for the NFC East lead and aided their postseason hopes infinitely, but instead fell to 5-2 in the NFC and 1-4 on the road, while the Buccaneers (6-3) passed them by. The Redskins overcame three first-half turnovers and an deficit that had swelled to 11 points to grab a 35-28 lead in the fourth quarter, but the defense wilted, allowing 25-year-old quarterback Chris Simms, mired in a deep funk before this game, to shred them with repeated huge plays down the stretch.
Tampa Bay moved 54 yards with less than two minutes play to win, with Simms finding third-year wide receiver Edell Shepherd for a diving, 30-yard touchdown pass, with cornerback Walt Harris trailing all the way -- a constant theme from the secondary Sunday. The Redskins were called for delay of game on the extra-point attempt. Harris then was credited with blocking the kick, although Shawn Springs was involved as well.
But Washington was called for offside on that play -- "I think our guys got a good jump," safety Ryan Clark said. "Whether we were offsides or not, I don't know" -- and rather than clinch a win with the block, the ball was moved to the 1, and Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden sent his offense racing back to the field.
"I was shocked," Simms said of the decision to go for the win with the two-point conversion.
Alstott had scored twice from close range by diving over the goal line, but this time he stayed low, as linebacker LaVar Arrington leaped over him, then plowed forward and used a second effort to nudge toward the end zone. A touchdown was signaled, the call was upheld and Coach Joe Gibbs whipped his arm in disgust, believing like many Redskins that Alstott had lost control of the ball with his elbow coming down before he broke the plane of the goal line. Referee Bill Vinovich told a pool reporter there was no obvious "indisputable visual evidence," which would be required to overturn the decision on the field.
"Our guys felt like [the ball] was on the ground before he got in," Gibbs said. "It's got to be a learning experience for us. This will be a real test for us."
"It's a dramatic victory," Gruden said, "one I'll never forget. There are no guarantees of what would happen in overtime. It was a great situation" to go for two points.
Washington had 58 seconds remaining with which to get in field goal range, but came up short, unable to muster one last comeback in a season of late flurries and wild finishes. On an afternoon in which the Redskins could have very easily led throughout, they had to chase from behind because of a propensity to give the ball away on the road. A defense, once the envy of much of the NFL, could not make vital stops, and the defensive backs came up short time after time as Simms threw three touchdowns for 279 yards (a 119.8 passer rating), and several clutch third-down throws to keep drives alive.
"We should never have been in that situation," Springs said. "We gave up too many points today. That was the bottom line."
The Redskins' early script came directly from their previous road games: Dominate possession, outgain the opponent by a large margin and fall behind anyway because of turnovers. Washington entered this game with a minus-9 turnover ratio on the road (10 give-aways to one take-away) and held the ball for more than nine minutes in the first quarter.
Running back Clinton Portis carried eight times for 82 yards and the team still trailed 7-3 after 15 minutes. Quarterback Mark Brunell (23 of 35 for 226 yards and a 79.0 passer rating entered the game with one interception in 171 attempts, then threw two in a span of eight attempts early in this game, the first of which set up Tampa Bay's initial touchdown. Wide receiver Joey Galloway hauled in a 34-yard pass with Springs blitzing to key that scoring drive. Brunell also fumbled twice on sacks in the first half -- Tampa's Pro Bowl end Simeon Rice, notorious for hurting the Redskins -- caused both, and the second fumble put the Buccaneers at the Washington 5; Alstott scored his second airborne touchdown on that drive for a 14-3 lead.
Washington reversed the momentum on the ensuing kickoff, as running back Ladell Betts got a massive pancake block from H-back Mike Sellers and rambled 94 yards for a score. Gruden threw his replay flag emphatically, and the Buccaneers were adamant that Betts had stepped out of bounds around midfield, but the score stood at 14-10 midway through the second quarter.
The Buccaneers marched 67 yards to retake the 11-point lead -- Galloway beat Springs in a 24-yard touchdown slant -- and John Hall's second field goal closed the first-half scoring. Washington finally forced a turnover on the opening play of the second half, as tackle Joe Salave'a, who played well despite a painful foot injury, stripped Carnell Williams inside the 10, leading to Sellers's seven-yard scoring catch (he leads the team with six touchdowns). Portis made a sliding catch on the two-point conversion and the score was tied at 21 early in the third quarter.
Brunell connected with Santana Moss for 42 yards on the next drive, then hit Betts for a 17-yard touchdown from there, giving the Redskins their first lead, but again the defense could not hold. Shepherd burned rookie cornerback Carlos Rogers for a 46-yard gain on third and nine, then found Ike Hilliard alone in the end zone from four yards to tie the game at 28, capping a 70-yard drive.
"It's our worst game, so much worse because our offense gave us 35 points," Clark said of the secondary.
That offense had one more burst in it, going 76 yards on six plays. Brunell was torrid, completed a fourth-down pass to H-back Chris Cooley, one of five receivers he found on the drive, and Portis's eight-yard run capped Washington's scoring. Thirty-five points should have been more than enough, but instead that touchdown was just the precursor for more heartbreak.
"After awhile you kind of figured it was going to come down to the very end," middle linebacker Lemar Marshall said. "But you've got to play all 60 minutes, and when you don't, things like this happen."