KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It was all over but the landing. Everything looked perfect: the play-call, the pass from Kirk Cousins, the grace with which Josh Doctson leaped over cornerback Phillip Gaines and welcomed the football into his hands. The Washington Redskins were a split second from taking the lead with 50 seconds remaining, from handing a loss to the NFL's last undefeated team.
Doctson still had to come down, however. As he crashed to the Arrowhead Stadium turf, the ball escaped his grasp, and so did a victory that Washington had fought through injury and improbability to capture. After the ball hit the ground, several players jumped and winced. So close. Coach Jay Gruden placed both hands on his head. So painful.
Even though Washington recovered and tied the game at 20 with a field goal, that vanishing touchdown signified what could have been Monday night. The Kansas City Chiefs have been the NFL's best team during the first month of the season, but Washington didn't come here to suffer a letdown that would only prove how far it is behind the big boys. No, it played as a big-boy peer, and a riveting football game broke out. When it was over, however, the Chiefs had outlasted the Redskins, 29-20.
With four seconds remaining, Kansas City took a 23-20 lead on a 43-yard Harrison Butker field goal. Then, as Washington tried to lateral the football into a miracle on the ensuing kickoff, Justin Houston recovered a fumble and scored a touchdown to account for the deceptive final score.
It was a great game that ended with Washington feeling empty. But when it recovers — emotionally and physically after an injury-marred game — the loser might find the performance reassuring. I'm not going to play the moral victory game, but it would be foolish to think that there is nothing positive about battling the league's hottest team for four quarters on prime time, in one of the loudest stadiums on Earth, and feeling as if a victory slipped away.
In some ways, this effort was more encouraging than the previous week's 27-10 blowout of Oakland. Destroying the Raiders was impressive. The defensive performance in that game will be remembered for a long time. But it's quite ordinary to knock off a good team at home, even if it was convincing. And now that Oakland is struggling and without injured quarterback Derek Carr, that win may not look all that wonderful in a few weeks. But to wallop one AFC West contender at home and then back it by up going on the road and nearly upending another one? The past two weeks have left a strong impression that Washington is ready to advance past mediocrity.
After four games, it's clear where Washington is: on the cusp of being really good. It has recovered from a slow start and acquired all the traits of a dependable team. That can change, of course, but when you consider the passion and effort this team exhibits weekly, it should take a lot to turn this team into a fickle frustration again.
Yes, the record is just 2-2. No, that isn't a mark that should inspire celebration. But Washington has done more than hold its own against a challenging schedule so far. It needs to heal during a well-timed bye this week, and if health doesn't stay a major concern, it's possible that this team can maintain and even exceed its high level of play.
The notion that Washington can't sustain success, or a stretch of good play, is outdated. In 2015, it went 6-2 in the second half of the season and wound up winning the NFC East. Last year, after an 0-2 start, it went 6-1-1 during an eight-game period and put itself in position to make the playoffs before closing the season in terrible fashion. The team still needs to increase its stamina, but it's slowly getting past its old status as a week-to-week mystery. This group doesn't get too excited about small victories. It isn't one that you have to worry so much about getting the big head. There are plenty of positive signs that it can handle success and remain hungry in pursuit of more.
But on Monday night, it squandered an opportunity to make a dramatic statement. With the offense looking sharp and the defense flying around, Washington took a 10-0 lead late in the first quarter. It was dominated Kansas City for the first 25 minutes of this game. But with 5:01 left in the second quarter, the Chiefs (4-0) showed why they are so dangerous.
Kansas City whittled the lead to 10-7 by halftime. In the final 5:01, the Chiefs gained 128 yards and changed the entire game.
Alex Smith, who threw for 293 yards, started finding tight end Travis Kelce, who finished with seven receptions for 111 yards and a touchdown. Running back Kareem Hunt eventually wore down the Washington defense and managed 101 rushing yards, 99 of which came in the final three quarters.
Washington held the ball for 10 minutes 47 seconds in the first quarter. For the rest of the game, the offense was only in possession for another 12 minutes 4 seconds. In the last three quarters, Kansas City had the ball almost 73 percent of the time. Washington was forced to try to stay in the game without star cornerback Josh Norman and several other starters who exited because of injury. It was a struggle, but there was an opportunity at the end.
Cousins capitalized by throwing the perfect pass to the right receiver in Doctson, who is 6-foot-2 and skilled at making plays in the air. Doctson caught and then dropped it. Washington had to settle for almost.
This team, which has one playoff appearance and zero postseason wins under Gruden, is still being graded on a curve. So Monday night was disappointing, but also an indicator of the team's potential.
How good can Washington be? Good enough to expect a day will come soon when tough road games aren't presumed losses and almost isn't acceptable.