DETROIT — All week long, the Washington Redskins brooded about the lack of respect they were getting for their four-game winning streak, labeled losers on national TV and installed as underdogs against teams they ended up beating.
Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions offered a chance to set the record straight — to prove that the defense had the stuff to stop Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and that their offense could finally erupt in a scoring barrage.
But after clawing back from two fumbles and a missed field goal to score what looked like the winning touchdown with 65 seconds left, the Redskins let Stafford have the final say. And the eight-year NFL veteran handed the Redskins a 20-17 defeat on an 18-yard strike to Anquan Boldin with 16 seconds remaining.
It was a particularly bitter loss for the Redskins (4-3), who left far too many points unscored, with running back Matt Jones and quarterback Kirk Cousins each fumbling the ball away. Washington also lost its best player on each side of the ball . Cornerback Josh Norman left the game with a concussion, and left tackle Trent Williams suffered what appeared to be a serious knee sprain.
Cousins (30 for 39 for 301 yards, one passing touchdown and one rushing) had just capped his most inspired drive, which included a completion to Chris Thompson while falling backward and the 19-yard run into the end zone for the go-ahead score, when Stafford went to work with a little more than a minute left in the game.
It was a terrible time for the Redskins to be without Norman. Instead of blitzing, the Redskins’ defense rushed three, and Stafford romped, hitting throws of 23 and 20 yards, with a scramble for 14 yards in between. His game-winner was a beauty — on his part and Boldin’s. And the arena of 60,461 that had momentarily fallen silent erupted anew while Redskins Coach Jay Gruden and many of his players were left to second-guess.
“You give a gunslinger like Matt Stafford time to find where his receivers [are] at, and his receivers got open,” defensive end Ricky Jean Francois said.
“In hindsight, we should have blitzed seven or eight,” Gruden said, adding that he would review the film and critique the decision-making later.
For Stafford (18 for 22 for 266 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions), the final throw was the sort of all-or-nothing proposition he loves.
In many respects, the Redskins won the battle. They rolled up more offense (417 yards to 344), more passing yards (283 to 250), more rushing yards (134 to 94), a higher third-down conversion rate (60 percent to 33) and hogged the ball nearly 35 minutes to Detroit’s 25.
Jones lost the ball twice in the first five minutes. He fumbled a handoff on the opening series but got the ball back. The costly error came on the next series, when he was stripped at the Detroit 2-yard line, with the Lions recovering in the end zone.
The Lions’ Matt Prater, who had missed earlier, parlayed it into a 43-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
With Jones exiled to the bench for the next several series, rookie Rob Kelley proved himself yet again the more reliable steward of the football. He also caught Cousins’s lone touchdown pass of the day, a one-yard, fourth-quarter strike that pulled the Redskins within 13-10.
“He’s trying to give extra effort,” Gruden said of Jones, his second-year back. “That’s something we learned last year and something we have to address again. We can’t keep addressing it, though.”
Cousins was effective moving the ball, leaning heavily on Jamison Crowder (seven catches for a team-high 108 yards), Thompson and tight end Vernon Davis. But the Lions’ defensive front was better than billed, beating each side of the offensive line for a sack. When the Redskins were stopped shy of the end zone in the second quarter, place kicker Dustin Hopkins took the field but clanged a 45-yard attempt off the top of the left goal post.
Washington’s defense forced a three and out, putting the ball back in the hands of the offense for a chance to avoid a scoreless first half. Gruden went back to Jones on the drive. And Hopkins sent through a 38-yarder that knotted it 3-3 at halftime.
After Detroit’s defense forced a punt to open the second half, Stafford gashed through gaps in coverage for an 18-yard scramble. Then he unleashed a 52-yard throw to his top receiver, Marvin Jones Jr., who had been silenced to that point by Norman. Norman matched him step for step, but the ball fell into Jones’s hands as Norman dove in vain, and the left side of Norman’s helmet hit the field hard. He lay there for some time before team officials escorted him slowly to the locker room, where he received a diagnosis of a concussion.
On the next play, Stafford stuck with Jones, who streaked toward the end zone on Bashaud Breeland’s side. Breeland brought him down just shy of the goal line. But running back Zach Zenner ran it in for the first touchdown, which gave Detroit a 10-3 lead.
Then came the Redskins’ second fumble. Center Spencer Long got manhandled by a defender, and Cousins tripped on Long and tried to get the ball to Jones. It squirted out instead, recovered by Detroit defensive end Kerry Hyder.
Long faulted himself, adding, “I promise you I’m going to learn from that and come back strong.”
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