ATLANTA — Jay Gruden laughed the oddest laugh. It was as if the rest of his emotions were tied up in a spirit-wrenching loss, and he let out the only reaction available to be seen. It was a laugh of resignation, an acceptance that sometimes sports drives you toward rhapsody — and then veers off into misery.
It was a short and sarcastic laugh. How else can a coach feel his way through a victory turned last-minute defeat turned last-second comeback turned overtime despair? How else can he reconcile the dichotomy between quarterback Kirk Cousins’s game-saving greatness in the final 24 seconds of regulation and his interception washout in overtime?
And on a play in which wide receiver Ryan Grant fell down running his route?
Shaking off a choppy performance, Cousins rescued the Washington Redskins at the Georgia Dome on Sunday. His reward was the most searing defeat of his 14-start NFL career.
After a 25-19 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, Gruden wrestled with the unfairness.
“And that’s . . . that’s . . . you know . . . We’ve got to . . .”
He trailed off and laughed the oddest laugh.
“It’s unfortunate,” Gruden said. “I don’t know what else to say on that.”
Washington (2-3) deserved better. It played solid defense despite facing a potent passing game without starting cornerbacks Chris Culliver and DeAngelo Hall. It led for most of the game despite having to move the ball without productive receiving targets DeSean Jackson and Jordan Reed. Though injured and pitted against an undefeated team, Washington played the better game and looked like it would end the day with an above-.500 record for the first time in three years.
Instead, the players and coaches were left to focus on the 153 rushing yards they allowed to Devonta Freeman, their inability to capitalize on turnovers and their disappointment over not putting away the game despite chances the offense and defense were given to finish with a flurry.
They were so close to a signature victory over one of the NFL’s most-improved teams. They were so close to a victory that would have made the nation acknowledge their own improvement.
Now they’re back to talking about staying together amid woe.
“It hurts to lose,” safety Trenton Robinson said, “but we have to bounce back.”
This game shouldn’t turn into the customary postmortem referendum on Cousins’s competence as a starting quarterback. But it will. Cousins has played well enough through five games to warrant patience. But many won’t give it to him. His pick-six to end this game was complicated. But it will be made simple.
Cousins was on the brink of posting last-second rallies in consecutive victories. Maybe it would have spawned a premature, alliterative nickname such as Comeback Kirk. But even when he’s not entirely to blame, Cousins can’t avoid being the guy who throws killer interceptions.
On the last play of the game, he released a pass quickly before blitzing Atlanta linebacker Nate Stupar could sack him. Grant, the intended receiver, fell. The throw sailed wide toward the Atlanta sideline. Cornerback Robert Alford snagged his second interception of the game and made amends for a pass-interference penalty that preceded a Matt Jones touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.
Alford collected himself before stepping out of bounds and sprinted 59 yards to the delight of a crowd of 70,718 — and to the torment of a quarterback who had just made three excellent throws to extend the game.
At the end of regulation, after Freeman’s six-yard touchdown run gave Atlanta a 19-16 lead with 24 seconds remaining, Cousins hit tight end Derek Carrier for a 20-yard gain. Then he connected with Pierre Garcon for a 19-yard gain. Finally, he found Jamison Crowder for a seven-yarder. With three passes, Cousins drove Washington 46 yards in 19 seconds. It enabled Dustin Hopkins to kick a 52-yard field goal as time expired.
“That was great,” Gruden said.
One week after Cousins helped his team beat Philadelphia on four-yard pass to Pierre Garcon with 26 seconds left, he was splendid in the clutch again.
And then he wasn’t.
“I was hot off the left side and felt the need to get rid of the football and not take a sack and kill the drive,” Cousins said, describing the final play. “I threw it, and the guy made a great play, and that was it.”
More than the last play, Cousins was upset about his inaccurate passes during other parts of the game. He completed 21 of 32 passes, but he missed several routine throws, often releasing passes that were too high. In a dome, under ideal throwing conditions, it was surprising to see.
“I felt like I wasn’t good enough on some of those throws,” Cousins said. “And there’s nowhere to point except to myself, that I’ve got to make those throws, and I can make those throws, and I believe I will over the long haul. But today I left too many out there.”
On a day in which the Washington running game produced a season-worst 51 yards on 24 carries, it needed Cousins to be more accurate, especially with playmakers Jackson and Reed not playing because of injuries. Still, the Redskins were in position to win for most of the game, and in the few moments they weren’t, Cousins resuscitated them.
But it only led to Alford seizing all the credit for resilience.
“People are always doubting him, throwing fire at him, and he shut everybody up,” said Desmond Trufant, the Falcons’ more acclaimed cornerback. “That’s what I’m most happy about, seeing my brother succeed.”
It’s not too hard to imagine a scenario in which giddy Washington players would have said the same about Cousins. But he was left to answer uncomfortable questions about how he will respond to this latest setback.
And Cousins is tired of the notion that he has trouble handling adversity.
“The bounce-back thing has never been an issue for me,” he said, sounding annoyed. “I feel like, if you go back through my story, that’s my life is bouncing back and fighting adversity and continuing to be tough — mentally, physically and emotionally tough. So I felt like I’ve always been able to do that. And to play quarterback in this league, you better be able to do that. That’s something that going forward I’ll continue to have to do.”
And then Cousins grinned the oddest grin. It was as if he were staving off agitation with a kind facade.
As the most heartbreaking loss of the Gruden era sunk in, the ironic reactions of coach and quarterback barely hid the pain.
More on the Redskins:
Summary: Falcons 25, Redskins 19 (OT)
D.C. Sports Bog: Best and worst moments from Redskins’ loss