The sideline was filled with more than 100 burgundy-and-gold greats of old — John Riggins, Art Monk, Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer among them — who stood shoulder to shoulder as alumni homecoming honorees. And quarterback Kirk Cousins opened the game with back-to-back touchdown drives while Washington’s defense easily handled the Vikings’ sputtering offense.
But the Redskins again turned a feel-good start into a nail-biter, surrendering 20 consecutive points in a disastrous five-minute span as the first half wound down. And yet again, the Redskins found a way to win, with the defense pitching a second-half shutout and kicker Dustin Hopkins drilling four field goals to scrape together a 26-20 victory.
If Sunday’s game proved anything, it’s that the 2016 Redskins team likely won’t go down as one of the greats in franchise history. With a 5-3-1 record, these Redskins have led and trailed in every game they have played. Rooting for them isn’t for the faint of heart; they will dazzle with big-play ability one moment, then go stone cold for stretches. But they are resilient, as Sunday’s game proved. Moreover, they have enough talent on their roster to get by without several of their stars.
Sunday’s comeback, which extended the Vikings’ losing streak to four games, was accomplished without Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams and wide receiver DeSean Jackson, the team’s most explosive deep threat.
In their places, journeyman Ty Nsekhe, who’s expected to man left tackle for the duration of Williams’s four-game suspension, didn’t allow a sack. And Cousins hardly lacked receiving targets, with Pierre Garcon leading the team with six catches for 81 hard-fought yards. Jamison Crowder added four catches for 37 yards (including one for a touchdown), and tight end Vernon Davis reeled in the big throw of the day — a 38-yarder that put the Redskins up 14-0 early in the second quarter.
And undrafted rookie running back Rob Kelley vindicated Coach Jay Gruden’s belief that he’s a better steward of the football than Matt Jones, the 2015 third-round draft pick he supplanted. In his second start at running back, Kelley contributed 97 yards on 22 carries, tough-nosed and sure-handed on crucial third-and-short plays.
Still, there would have been no comeback without the second-half heroics of Hopkins, who hit from 30, 37, 50 and 28 yards. Ultimately, it fell to the Redskins’ defense to protect a six-point lead in the final two minutes.
Quarterback Sam Bradford (31 for 40 for 307 yards and two touchdowns) drove the Vikings (5-4) to the Washington 21 with 40 seconds remaining. Linebacker Trent Murphy flew in for a sack, and an incomplete pass brought up a fourth and 17. As Bradford scanned the field, linebacker Preston Smith got his second sack of the day to preserve the winning margin, leaving Cousins to take a knee.
“It took everybody,” said Cousins, who finished 22 for 33 for 262 yards and two touchdowns.
It was a jubilant locker room afterward, even as players conceded their shortcomings.
“We still have to learn how to take them down and keep them down,” defensive end Chris Baker said. “We get the lead early and then give up the lead and let the team come back. To be a good team, we have to stick our foot on their throat from the beginning of the game until after the game — and not let teams back into the game.”
The Redskins may be a step — or several steps — away from a complete team that steamrolls opponents from the first quarter to the last. But in an NFL season that’s decidedly short on powerhouse teams, the Redskins’ ability to muddle through Sunday represented progress.
After forcing the Vikings to punt on their opening possession, Cousins put together an efficient opening drive, firing quickly and with confidence, though lucky at one point to avoid an interception because two defenders collided. On a fourth try inside the 20, he connected with Crowder for the game’s first score.
He capped the next drive with the 38-yard strike to Davis, which put the Redskins up 14-0.
But after a fruitless Redskins possession, Bradford hit Stefon Diggs with a 36-yard completion against coverage by rookie Kendall Fuller. Diggs, the former All-Met and Maryland standout, had a terrific day against the Redskins’ secondary, finishing with a game-high 13 catches for 164 yards.
After twice not allowing the Vikings to score from their 1, the Redskins’ defense let Minnesota’s Matt Asiata bore through for a touchdown that made it 14-7.
Cousins went ballistic when a third-and-10 throw to Ryan Grant failed to draw a pass interference call, racing 30 yards to plead his case. Grant appeared to slip. The Redskins punted, and the Vikings had 3:38 remaining in the half to tie it. They did that and more.
Helped by another big completion to Diggs, Bradford marched into Washington territory and threw a 23-yard touchdown pass that tied it at 14.
Redskins third-down back Chris Thompson had the ball stripped on the first play of the subsequent drive. Minnesota recovered on the Washington 33. In less than 50 seconds, Bradford hit Adam Thielen for the go-ahead score, but the Vikings missed the extra point to take a 20-14 lead into break.
The Redskins didn’t score a touchdown in the second half, but Hopkins eked three points out of every drive except the last, when Cousins took a knee to seal it.
And Smith was the hero on defense, picking off Bradford for the first interception of his career midway through the fourth quarter and supplying the sack that sealed it.
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