December 9, 1991: Redskins Bring It On Home In Phoenix, 20-14

TEMPE, DEC. 8 -- Their afternoon began with the news that another New Orleans loss had assured them of home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs. And for a half, the Washington Redskins played like a team only half interested in today’s business before rallying to defeat the Phoenix Cardinals, 20-14, before 48,373 at Sun Devil Stadium.

Trailing 14-0 at halftime, and with nothing tangible on the line, they responded like champions. Mark Rypien threw a pair of third-quarter touchdown passes, Chip Lohmiller kicked two fourth-quarter field goals and the Redskins got an absolutely stifling defensive performance in handing the Cardinals a sixth straight loss.

So their business is done. With regular season games remaining against the New York Giants, who were eliminated today, and the Philadelphia Eagles, the Redskins have assured themselves of staying home for the playoffs. They have a first-round bye, then will play Jan. 4 or 5 at RFK Stadium. If they win that one, they’ll play host to the NFC championship game the next week.

They’ve had total home-field advantage three other years -- in 1972, 1982 and 1983 -- and they went to the Super Bowl in each.

”We got everything we set out for,” Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said. “We’ve got all our goals. Now, we’ll play the last two games as hard as we can. Any other way wouldn’t be right. You don’t go half-speed against anybody. We came roaring back the second half again. We’ve done that before, and I’m proud I’ve got guys like this.”

After getting a measly 121 yards against the 18th-best defense in the NFL in the first half, the Redskins opened the second half with picture-perfect touchdown drives of 80 and 71 yards. The first ended with tight end Terry Orr catching a four-yard touchdown pass and the second ended with wide receiver Ricky Sanders catching a 17-yarder. Having been outplayed in the first half, they gained 155 yards and allowed zero in the third quarter.

Lohmiller’s 42-yard field goal with 9:04 left in the fourth quarter gave them the winning points, and free safety Brad Edwards’s interception two plays later set up a 27-yard kick.

In the end, the Redskins could celebrate the way they responded. They could celebrate a defense that held the Cardinals without a first down on their first four possessions of the second half and allowed 40 total yards in the second half.

They could celebrate the return of their running game, with Earnest Byner gaining 116 yards on 25 carries. Rypien also had a big day, completing 22 of 33 for 256 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Gary Clark caught seven passes for 99 yards. Edwards and cornerback Martin Mayhew intercepted passes, and defensive tackle Tim Johnson had a sack.

Gibbs had warned his players that, with two weeks to prepare, the Cardinals likely would throw some new wrinkles at them. One of those was bringing one of their safeties to the middle of the field and closer to the line of scrimmage, a move that essentially committed eight defenders to stopping the running game.

The Redskins had only 32 rushing yards at the half, and hadn’t hit enough passing plays to get the Cardinals out of the formation. At halftime, Gibbs made a couple of moves. One was putting the Redskins in a three-wide-receiver set that forced the Cardinals to take a defender away from the line of scrimmage to defend the pass.

Second, he put more responsibility on Rypien’s shoulders. Rypien walked to the line of scrimmage, surveyed the defensive scheme and called a play based on what he saw.

Gibbs said that, in certain situations, Rypien has always had that responsibility. But in a season in which he has proven himself again and again, Rypien is getting more and more duties. He was just about brilliant on those two third-quarter drives. His first pass was an incompletion, but after that he hit Clark for 17, Sanders for 22, Clark for 11, Sanders for nine, Clark for six and Orr for the touchdown. Bottom line: five straight completions for 69 yards and a touchdown.

”It’s really a cat-and-mouse game, trying to match up a play with their defense,” Rypien said. “We just had to get it going.”

The Redskins also pointed to the emotions of halftime, and emphasized the New Orleans loss was irrelevant. “That didn’t matter,” Rypien said. “We wanted to play well. This game was important and the last two weeks will be important.”

At intermission, middle linebacker Matt Millen loudly challenged his teammates to go out and prove one more thing about themselves by overcoming a 14-0 deficit. Gibbs said there was nothing from him similar to last week’s chair-kicking in Anaheim, but others heard loud words around the locker room.

”The only thing that needed adjusting was our mental attitude,” defensive end Fred Stokes said. “We had to re-think our situation. We didn’t want to go out and be embarrassed. There was no panic. There was a lot of hollering and screaming, but this wasn’t panic. You can tell when it’s panic. This was more making up our mind to get it going.”

The game was scoreless until a punt bounced off Brian Mitchell’s facemask and was recovered by Steve Hych with 13:09 left in the second quarter. The Cardinals took over on the Redskins 40 and drove for a 7-0 lead in seven plays, with Johnny Johnson scoring on a one-yard run with 8:31 left in the first half. The first big play of the drive came on fourth and two at the Washington 32 when quarterback Stan Gelbaugh hit running back Larry Centers for three yards.

On the next play, Gelbaugh connected with wide receiver Ernie Jones for 27 yards to the 2. Anthony Thompson rushed for one on first down, and Johnson scored.

Mayhew’s third interception of the season ended Phoenix’s next scoring threat. The Redskins got the ball back at their own 2, and after Clark dropped a third-down pass at the 35, the Cardinals took over at their own 48 with 2:48 remaining.

They zipped in for the score, going 52 yards in five plays. Gelbaugh hit Jones for gains of 18 and eight to the 24. Johnson swept left over cornerback Darrell Green for 21 to the 3, then Johnson bulled in to make it 14-0 with 1:01 left in the half.

And then came the second half, which didn’t resemble the first in any way.

”They threw some things at us we didn’t expect,” Redskins tackle Ed Simmons said. “We didn’t have a game plan prepared for what they gave us, and at halftime the coaches came up with some different twists. We had the intensity. That wasn’t a problem. It was just playing against something we hadn’t prepared for. They had two weeks to get ready and they threw some different things at us. We weren’t worried about New Orleans losing. We didn’t care about that. This game was what we cared about.”

The Redskins totaled 151 yards on their first two possessions of the third quarter. Orr’s four-yard catch got them within seven, and Sanders’s 17-yarder tied it at 14-14 with 2:22 left in the third.

The first drive began with an incompletion and with Byner stopped for no gain. From there, it was easy. Rypien hit Clark for 17, the first of six straight completions.

On first and goal at the 3, Gerald Riggs, on his only carry of the day, was dropped for a loss of one. On second and goal, Rypien faked to Riggs and lobbed to a wide-open Orr in the end zone.

The second drive was even better. Byner opened with gains of three and nine. Ricky Ervins lost one. Rypien hit Clark for 22. Byner gained 13. After an incompletion, Rypien hit Clark for eight and, on third-and-two at the 17, he lobbed a beauty for Sanders in the left corner of the end zone.

Sanders had a step on cornerback Aeneas Williams, and Rypien hit him in stride despite being decked by blitzing cornerback Lorenzo Lynch.

”He dinged me pretty good,” Rypien said. “I was down there for a second.”

Then on their second possession of the fourth quarter, the Redskins drove 44 yards in seven plays to get the winning points. Rypien started it with a 30-yarder to wide receiver Art Monk, and Ervins picked up gains of nine and six. The drive stalled at the 25, and Lohmiller’s first field goal made it 17-14.

Lohmiller had missed a 42-yarder in the first half -- his seventh miss in his last 11 tries -- and said he re-pulled a muscle in his back on the first kickoff.

Two plays later, Edwards stepped in front of wide receiver Ricky Proehl at the Phoenix 41 and returned the interception to the 16. After three plays gained six yards, Lohmiller’s 27-yarder made it 20-14.

”Our defensive line had good pressure, and he threw it before he wanted to,” Edwards said. “I’m sure the guy looked open to him. He thought I was going to break off and take the other guy. But that’s my receiver. If he’d had an extra second to hold the ball, he might have seen the coverage better.”