Washington Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs's futile chase of San Diego tailback LaDainian Tomlinson ended in the left corner of the end zone, where he screamed in frustration at another loss and slammed his helmet to the ground with such force that it bounced knee-high. Springs's gesture captured the Redskins' emotional state as the season seemed to slip away, with Tomlinson's 41-yard overtime dash the latest blow to their dwindling playoff hopes.
Another 10-point, second-half lead at FedEx Field had vanished for Washington, morphing into a 23-17 overtime loss at the hands of another former Redskins coach, Marty Schottenheimer. The offense again failed to score enough points to win and the defense adhered to the script as well, thriving for much of the game but yielding crucial plays in another heartbreaking defeat. Washington (5-6) has dropped six of its last eight games and, most importantly, squandered a chance to gain a game on Dallas and the New York Giants, who both lost but still lead the Redskins by two games in the NFC East.
There were ample opportunities to put the Chargers away in what many players dubbed a "must-win game," including taking over at the San Diego 31 on Springs's interception with 64 seconds to play. The Redskins then lost 10 yards on center Casey Rabach's holding penalty and missed a 52-yard field goal, the turning point in yet another late-game meltdown. The Chargers outscored Washington 16-0 in the fourth quarter and overtime and outgained the Redskins 188-50; Tomlinson (213 total yards and three touchdowns) ran nine times for 118 yards in that span with two scores, the first a 32-yard sprint to tie the game at 17 with less than four minutes to play.
"It only takes a couple of plays to lose," end Phillip Daniels said. "We've just got to learn how to finish. That's the main thing. Learn how to finish games, and not be conservative and go get them. We just have to learn how to finish as a team, each guy."
The Redskins have led in the fourth quarter in three straight games and lost them all, outscored 30-7 in the final period and overtime of those games. This loss, though, imperiled their season and brought some players to tears, and put others on the brink. "For me personally, this is about as tough a stretch as I have been through," Coach Joe Gibbs said.
The Redskins led 10-7 at halftime and had righted some of their wrongs. Finally, they had a pass rush with defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin back from injury -- harassing Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees into a sloppy 22-for-44 outing (a 35.7 passer rating) with three fourth-quarter interceptions -- and they won the turnover battle after bringing an NFL-worst minus-13 margin into the game. Their undermanned receiving corps battled, with Taylor Jacobs making several big third-down catches, including a 13-yard grab early in the third quarter to sustain a scoring drive. Santana Moss (who snapped a four-game touchdown drought in the second quarter) had two grabs for 30 yards on that march and reserve runner Rock Cartwright slipped 13 yards untouched to put Washington ahead 17-7 late in the third quarter.
That was the extent of its second-half offense, however. The Redskins (0-10 against the AFC dating from 2003) failed to surpass 21 points for the 23rd time in 27 games in the second tenure of Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs (they are 11-16 in that time). Quarterback Mark Brunell was plenty efficient but once again lacking a downfield threat with Moss contained, and Washington had no plays of more than 23 yards.
"Of all the things that happened in that game, it really boils down to not scoring enough points," Brunell said.
San Diego moved 47 yards on the ensuing possession, with Tomlinson heating up, and cut the lead to seven on Nate Kaeding's 48-yard field goal (he missed from 42 and 46 yesterday). With tight end Antonio Gates hobbling, wide receiver Eric Parker (98 yards) made repeated clutch catches, and Tomlinson, who scored from one yard in the second quarter, produced his second touchdown of this game on the 32-yard tear.
The Chargers opened a huge hole between the left guard and tackle, right guard Mike Goff pulled well, wide receiver Keenan McCardell delivered a block and Tomlinson blazed into the secondary, then glided the final 10 yards without a Redskin in closing range. Meanwhile, Washington's fourth-quarter offense consisted almost exclusively of three-and-outs for the second straight week, but when linebacker Marcus Washington tipped Brees's pass and Springs pulled it in at the San Diego 31 with 1:04 left, optimism abounded.
"I thought we were in good shape to kick a field goal and win it, but obviously we weren't," Springs said.
Frequently, Washington has failed to get a first down late in games to cement a win, but in this case the club needed only "a few more yards," in Gibbs's words, to get into prime field goal position. But on second and four from the 25, Rabach was called for holding; Clinton Portis (29 carries for 87 yards) was stuffed for no gain and Brunell threw incomplete. Then John Hall's 52-yard kick went wide right (he connected from 38 yards in the first quarter).
"Everything's got to be perfect on a kick like that," Hall said. "When you've got a light wind in your face, it's tough. But I'm not making any excuses. It cost us the game, that was the bottom line."
San Diego won the overtime coin flip, Gates caught a pass and rambled 24 yards down the right sideline and Tomlinson surged to the left on first down. The Chargers believed they could prosper on "power" running plays, Tomlinson said, and operated as such on the final sequence. He started inside, cut left and again Goff helped open a big hole. Safety Ryan Clark dived at Tomlinson, clinging for a moment before being stiff-armed to the grass -- "It was me and the safety and at that time I'm thinking, 'There's no way I'm going down,' " Tomlinson said -- becoming the last Redskins player to make contact with the runner.
"I had a good shot," Clark said. "It was just man-to-man, and he beat me. He made the play and scored that touchdown. I have to make that tackle That's the play I want to make, that's the situation I want to be in. I've just got to make the play."
The Redskins, however, are in a situation they desperately wanted to avoid. Their 3-0 start has been followed by repeated setbacks, and their odds of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1999 grow steeper by the week as they travel to St. Louis (5-6) next weekend.
"I'm just trying to figure out where we go from here," linebacker LaVar Arrington said.