NEW ORLEANS — For 54 exhilarating minutes, the Washington Redskins danced through their pain, laughed at their limitations and scared the virtue out of the New Orleans Saints.
They shunned caution. They went for it twice on fourth down and succeeded. Heck, in the third quarter, they converted a fake punt from their 15-yard line on the play after Kirk Cousins took a blow to the head and Chris Thompson broke his leg. This was the best of a capricious and seemingly cursed team: aggressive, ambitious, buoyant amid misfortune, confident, surprising, undaunted. And for 54 exhilarating minutes, they were poised to claim their biggest victory in a season of unpredictable performances.
For 90 percent of another shockingly pleasant trip, Washington was prepared to resurrect the promise of the entire season.
And it only made the crash more devastating.
In case you had forgotten that happy endings get buried in burgundy and gold, Washington reinvented heartbreak again Sunday, less than six minutes from a victory over the NFL's hottest team before taking a familiar nose-dive to catastrophe. This time, a 15-point lead vanished, and what replaced it will be felt from now until the sport shows mercy after the New Year's Eve season finale: a 34-31 overtime loss at the Superdome that transformed Washington's best game into its latest existential crisis.
What is the meaning of this season? What does it say about Washington football? For nine games, there seemed to be a competition for the answer. There was hope that all the injuries and obstacles existed to reveal the character and determination of a team not guaranteed to stay together past this season. On the other hand, there was fear that this merely has been chaos of a new form, all of it meant to whack you once again with the dreadful idea that this franchise can't win, no matter what it does.
On Sunday, Washington showed its likable, resilient side. And then the Saints crushed all positive vibes.
"It's terrible," Coach Jay Gruden said. "I feel bad for the players. We laid it all out on the line."
A few seconds later, he closed with a piercingly obvious line: "You don't get anything for close."
Well, you get grief for it. How do you blow a 31-16 lead in the final 5 minutes 58 seconds? For Washington, it took a collapse from a defense that was playing well. It took experiencing some Drew Brees magic. It took Cousins losing his well-intentioned mind, and it took an awful third-and-one play with 2:38 remaining, and it took a complete offensive meltdown.
It took Washington reverting to its worst tendencies: disorder, miscommunication and an overall lack of sound judgment.
"At the end of the day, we didn't do our job," safety D.J. Swearinger said. "We beat ourselves, for sure. For sure, we beat ourselves. I tip my hat to the whole organization over there, and Drew Brees and the whole offense. But we definitely beat ourselves."
Washington allowed 535 yards, which is crazy because there was a time when the defense was effective. The Saints had 275 yards in the first three quarters, but they gained 260 in the fourth quarter and overtime.
With 5:58 left, the Saints had 317 yards. In their final three drives, they gained 218. On the last two drives of regulation, Brees completed 11 straight passes, threw for 164 yards, two touchdowns and executed a toss to Alvin Kamara to execute a two-point conversion.
And how did Washington fare on its last three drives? It ran 11 plays and managed 27 yards. With Washington leading 31-23, the first of those final drives ended with Samaje Perine, who rushed for 117 yards, failing to convert an ill-thought third-and-one play running to his right. After New Orleans tied the game at 31, Washington drove to the New Orleans 34-yard line — right in the neighborhood of kicker Nick Rose's field goal range — with 31 seconds remaining. Then came a disaster.
Gruden had called a run play, but once the Saints lined up on defense, the team knew it was the wrong call. The offensive coaches signaled for Cousins to audible into a pass. Cousins said he thought they were signaling for him to throw away the football. So he took the snap and tossed a pass in the direction of Jamison Crowder, who was blocking on the play. The officials called an intentional grounding penalty. Washington lost 10 yards and fell out of field goal range. On the final play of regulation, Cousins was sacked.
As Cousins spoke with Gruden in the locker room afterward, he expressed frustration that the officials made the call, but when asked by reporters, he was not critical, saying evenly, "I thought if he was in the area of where the ball is thrown, they wouldn't flag it, but I can understand why the flag was thrown in the sense that it appeared like he wasn't trying to catch it, and so it looks like I'm throwing it to nobody."
Washington received the ball first in overtime, and its final drive of the game completed the trifecta of failure. Vernon Davis dropped a pass that Gruden figured he would catch "99 times out of 100." Cousins was sacked. And Perine dropped a short pass on third and 20.
After a mostly brilliant offensive performance that included 456 total yards, great stat lines by Perine (117 rushing yards, one touchdown), Cousins (322 yards, three touchdowns) and a dominant first half by Josh Doctson (four receptions, 81 yards), the offense did nothing to stop the Saints' comeback.
So you can now schedule a January vacation. Barring something extraordinary, Washington's playoff hopes no longer exist. At this point, the simple act of playing a game with no major injuries would amount to a miracle, so the extreme blessing of winning six in a row and climbing from 4-6 to 10-6 seems like a foolish request.
If Washington had won this game, it would have a 5-5 record, with a prime-time snoozefest against the 2-8 New York Giants slated for Thanksgiving. This week would have been full of hope about climbing above .500 and putting everything into a showdown with Dallas the next week. Instead, it feels like Washington has only pride left as motivation.
"It stings," Gruden said. "It stings a lot of people. It stings everybody involved with the Washington Redskins, that's for sure."
In a thinning locker room Sunday afternoon, Josh Norman crouched at his locker, his eyes red and swollen, irritated from the game and from tears. He looked down at the carpet. He huffed. He slammed his right fist into his left hand repeatedly.
Every season has a defining game. This was theirs. For 54 exhilarating minutes, it looked like a grand statement. However, if you've watched this season of the walking wounded, you already know the word that captures the 2017 Washington Redskins.
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