The aura of another fourth-quarter collapse hung over the Washington Redskins' sideline Sunday as quarterback Mark Brunell swept an errant fumble out of the end zone for a safety, preventing a potential touchdown for the St. Louis Rams defense. Another late-game gaffe had cut Washington's lead to 17-9, with the Rams getting the ball back on a free kick.
A game in which the Redskins should have led comfortably, like so many that came before it, was instead quite close. This one, however, ended differently. Two plays later, the Rams fumbled a snap, defensive end Renaldo Wynn pounced on the football and the Redskins capped the drive with a touchdown that cemented a 24-9 win at Edward Jones Dome and kept the team's playoff hopes alive.
"We scored 14 in the fourth quarter, and the last few weeks we haven't been able to do that," said Brunell, whose team was outscored 30-7 in the fourth quarter and overtime the previous three weeks. "I think it just shows the resolve of this team. We had three very frustrating weeks -- games that were very much in our reach -- and today we made the plays we need to make to win the football game."
Washington (6-6) had lost three in a row and six of eight, making Sunday's game a must-win. The Redskins now travel to Arizona (4-8) next week before finishing the regular season with games against NFC East opponents New York, Dallas and Philadelphia. They trail Dallas, Atlanta and Minnesota by a game for the final wild-card spot.
The Redskins won this game following the blueprint they hope to follow each Sunday -- dominate the line of scrimmage on offense and assault the quarterback on defense. The defense disrupted the Rams' precision offense with a torrent of blitzes, leaving rookie quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick scrambling throughout his first NFL start. Washington's run attack was just as relentless, churning out 257 yards, with tailback Clinton Portis amassing 136 yards and two touchdowns and backup Rock Cartwright contributing a career-best 118 yards.
Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense, said the bulk of preparation this week was on power running plays -- "We weren't leaving here without trying to run the football down their throat," he said -- and at halftime Portis lobbied Coach Joe Gibbs to stick with the ground-based beating. "We begged for it," Portis said. "We know what our bread and butter is, and we stuck to it."
Portis and Cartwright shared the ball on the victory-clinching drive, working 41 yards until Brunell hit H-back Chris Cooley for a four-yard touchdown and a 24-9 lead. Until that point, this affair was dangerously close, another afternoon when the Redskins dominated territorially for much of the first half but came away with so little to show for it. They outgained the Rams 225-97 in the first half, but again lacked in fundamentals, stumbling through more personal fouls, special teams infractions and holding penalties, and led 10-7 after 30 minutes.
The Redskins actually appeared poised to finally seize a game from the onset. The blitz-crazed defense flummoxed Fitzpatrick, the 250th overall pick out of Harvard, into a 58.0 passer rating, sacking him three times in the first half. "There were some things out there that confused me a little bit," he said. They knocked the Rams backward 19 yards on their opening drive, and never let up.
"We knew we could do that to him," defensive end Phillip Daniels said, "especially if they didn't max protect. Overall, we did a great job of getting to him and forcing him to make quick decisions. We kind of looked like our old defense from last year."
Washington's offense, in turn, pounded away on the ensuing possession after the initial defensive stand. Portis dashed right 47 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter -- his longest run since going 64 yards for a touchdown to start the 2004 season. Right guard Jon Jansen, right tackle Randy Thomas, who is having a quietly strong season, and H-back Chris Cooley exploded off the line of scrimmage, and Thomas rumbled 17 yards downfield to execute a pancake block that allowed Portis to turn inside and score.
"We thought we could take advantage of some things on the ground," Jansen said, "That's the statement we wanted to make. We needed to do it throughout a whole game and we did it today."
Portis had 10 carries for 79 yards in the first quarter, but Gibbs, ever conservative, opted to try a 48-yard field goal on fourth and one from the St. Louis 28 at the start of the second quarter. John Hall's kick was wide left, and the Rams quickly tied the game at 7 midway through the second quarter.
"You think about it there," Gibbs said of going for it on fourth down. "But John's been so automatic, I kind of felt like it would be great at that point to have a 10-point lead."
St. Louis had been inept offensively, then charged 86 yards on 11 plays. Fitzpatrick hit Pro Bowl wide receiver Torry Holt four times early in the drive. Interim coach Joe Vitt went for it on fourth and two from the 33 and although Fitzpatrick misfired to Isaac Bruce, safety Sean Taylor's face-mask penalty resulted in a 15-yard gain, then Fitzpatrick's seven-yard rumba through the defense produced the Rams' only touchdown.
Cartwright entered the game on the next drive and took a third-and-one carry 52 yards -- another play to the right side with the offensive line creating a huge hole -- stumbling to the ground at the 6 on the longest carry of his career. "It pretty much parted like the Red Sea, and all I had to do was run," said Cartwright, with huge ice packs on both shoulders after the game. "I should have scored." Instead, the Redskins settled for a 38-yard field goal, and penalties kept the game close.
Jansen's false start penalty took 10 seconds off the clock at the end of the first half with the Redskins nearing field goal range, and Washington erased half of the third quarter with its next drive, but Chris Samuels's holding penalty negated Santana Moss's big third-down gain to the St. Louis 24. It was still 10-7 late in the third quarter, then tight end Robert Royal, whose repeated drops doomed his team last week, ran 29 yards on a screen, and on third down and nine, Brunell looked for Moss, his most trusted target.
Moss leaped for the ball, rising above the back of safety Jerome Carter, and hauled down a 30-yard gain to the 9. "The safety was bearing down on him," Brunell said. "So I tried to get the ball up so he could make a play, and he did." At the 2, Portis took over, leaving his feet on his second attempt and plopping down over the goal line for a 17-7 lead with about 14 minutes to play.
Turns out that might have been enough to win right there, but the drama of a safety added to the fourth-quarter intrigue that has surrounded this team all season long. After three weeks, Sunday there was no heartbreak.
"I'm proud to be where we are, to tell you the truth" Gibbs said. "We've got a lot to look forward to down the stretch, and we'll see what happens."