Redskins Put the Hammer Down, Outrun Falcons, 24-7
By Richard Justice
The Redskins will host the winner of this afternoon's Dallas-Detroit divisional playoff game, and an indication of the excellence that Coach Joe Gibbs brought in 1981 is that it will be their fifth NFC final in 10 seasons.
To get this far, they played a game in horrible weather conditions, heavy rain and swirling wind. They played a game that resembled a lot of their 14 regular season victories in that it included a steady, relentless effort and a handful of big plays, including forcing Atlanta into six turnovers. The Redskins also withstood the best punches an opponent could deliver, beginning with another round of mind games by Falcons Coach Jerry Glanville.
When they were done, they were one victory from their fifth Super Bowl, the fourth under Gibbs. Dallas and Miami are the only NFL franchises that have been to the Super Bowl five times.
"I'm proud of our team and I'm exhausted," Gibbs said. "That was playoff weather and our players were ready. Everybody likes to talk about offense, but defense wins championships, and our defense has done a great job all season."
The afternoon began with Glanville holding up a Redskins helmet to taunt the RFK audience, then sending his entire roster out for the coin toss. Then, return man Deion Sanders did a taunting little dance moments before the kickoff.
If the message from the Falcons was that they wouldn't be intimidated, they clearly weren't. Two months after losing 56-17 at RFK, the Falcons threw a confusing defensive scheme at the Redskins and entered the fourth quarter within 10 points, down 17-7.
But the Redskins won because they forced those six turnovers. Middle linebacker Kurt Gouveia subbed for Matt Millen against the "Red Gun" offense and intercepted a pass and forced a fumble. End Charles Mann forced a fumble. Defensive backs Martin Mayhew and Danny Copeland and linebacker Monte Coleman also had interceptions, and end Fred Stokes had two of the four sacks of Chris Miller, who threw four interceptions.
While the Redskins played superb defense, they sputtered offensively. Two months ago, the Falcons stacked up the running game and dared the Redskins to pass, and Rypien responded with six touchdown throws. This time, they played a soft zone and dared the Redskins to run, which they did, getting 162 yards in all.
But the mud and rain made the passing game a risky proposition and Rypien did just enough to get by. The Redskins tried to freeze the Falcons in one defensive alignment by running the no-huddle offense much of the day, and Rypien completed 14 of 28 passes for 170 yards. He had at least four drops, but drops were the norm on a day when the field was mush and the balls were like lead early in the second half.
"By far, the worst I've ever seen," said Redskins kicker Chip Lohmiller, who missed three field goal tries.
"Easily the worst," said punter Kelly Goodburn, who twice made heroic plays in scooping up bouncing snaps at a point in the game when a blocked kick could have been disastrous for Washington.
Glanville ended the afternoon by jogging quickly off the field and bypassing the traditional postgame handshake with Gibbs. He enhanced his reputation as an eccentric, unpredictable coach by bringing his team to the city on Friday and immediately taking them on a tour of the monuments.
He also carries the burden of being a coach whose teams never quite fulfill their promise. He has not had a team win after the wild-card round, and among active coaches, only Kansas City's Marty Schottenheimer has coached longer without getting to a conference final. Last week Glanville directed the Falcons past the New Orleans Saints in a wild-card game.
"The all-time high in the NFL is when you win a playoff game," Glanville said. "The all-time low is when you lose. There is no tomorrow. You just pack it in and go home. The Redskins did a good job. You don't win 14 games in this league if you aren't good."
Glanville revealed after the game that wide receiver Michael Haynes, his best deep threat, almost missed the game with an injury. Haynes had only one catch, and fumbled that when hit by Gouveia. The Falcons were without running backs Steve Broussard and Mike Rozier, and the three backs who replaced them combined for 43 yards.
Nevertheless, the Falcons gave the Redskins everything they wanted. The game was scoreless until Rypien picked up a blitz and audibled to a draw play that resulted in a 17-yard touchdown by Ervins with 12:36 left in the second quarter.
The play was a thing of beauty because Ervins broke two tackles and was dazzling in cutting outside. It was also impressive because the Redskins didn't even have it in their game plan this week. Rypien called it anyway and everyone in the offensive unit picked it up.
Afterward, Pro Bowl tackle Jim Lachey asked Rypien, "Uh, you did say what I thought you said?"
Three plays later, Mann stripped the ball from running back Pat Chaffey and defensive tackle Jumpy Geathers recovered at the Atlanta 39. Earnest Byner, who finished with 57 yards on 14 carries, picked up gains of eight and three, then Rypien hit wide receiver Ricky Sanders for 26 yards to the 2. Gerald Riggs scored from there, the first of his two touchdowns.
That came with 9:25 left in the first half and put the Redskins in front 14-0. The no-huddle appeared to have caught the Falcons off balance and that's just what Gibbs hoped for.
"Their scheme is a lot of stunts and five-man fronts," Gibbs said. "We thought we'd create some indecision on their part, and maybe keep them from changing so much."
Glanville was so upset by the officiating that he charged onto the field and had to be restrained from challenging an official.
His day got worse three plays later when cornerback A.J. Johnson decked Miller, whose pass wobbled into Mayhew's hands in the flat. The Redskins took over at the Atlanta 27, but couldn't put the Falcons away. Safety Brian Jordan intercepted a Rypien pass after Washington had moved to the 10.
"Rozier was out, so we didn't think they'd run," Gibbs said. "We sat back in a zone and forced him to throw it where he didn't want to. We didn't blitz much, but we still had good pressure. I don't think Miller really knew what was going on out there. We mixed it up really well."
The Redskins then had chance after chance to put the game away and couldn't. Gouveia intercepted a pass, but Lohmiller missed a 37-yard field goal. The Falcons then drove 80 yards to make it 14-7 on Tracy Johnson's one-yard run with 57 seconds left in the first half.
Lohmiller missed a 44-yard field goal as the half expired, and Glanville wasn't whistling Dixie when he said: "We were in the game at halftime. I thought we could still win it."
The Redskins flirted with disaster at the start of the second half. They ran three plays, but long snapper John Brandes bounced the ball to Goodburn, who barely got the 37-yard punt away.
"Your reflexes take over," Goodburn said. "It happened so fast that you just react. Fortunately, I got them off. I was a shortstop in high school. That might have helped."
The Redskins again held the Falcons, and Brian Mitchell's 26-yard return of a 34-yard punt gave them the ball at the Atlanta 18. They couldn't move far, but they didn't need to. The drive stalled at the 7, and Lohmiller's 24-yard field goal made it 17-7 with 6:54 left in the third.
The quarter ended just after Norm Johnson missed a 45-yard field goal for the Falcons, and that was basically it. With no running game to defend, the Redskins threw a variety of zones at the Falcons, and Miller never adjusted.
Meanwhile, with the Falcons playing softly on defense, they decided to match their front seven (one of the NFL's smallest) against the Redskins offensive line (one of the largest).
The last big play came with 13:52 left in the game when Haynes caught a pass in the flat, got drilled from behind by Gouveia and fumbled. Linebacker Wilber Marshall recovered, and the Redskins ground out a 52-yard drive for the clinching touchdown. Riggs got it on a one-yard run, and by that time only 6:32 remained.
They did it on the ground with Ervins picking up 28 yards and they did it with Rypien twice hitting third-down passes to wide receiver Gary Clark. The Falcons appeared to have stopped the drive at the 8 when a third-and-two pass for Ervins fluttered off his fingertips. However, cornerback Deion Sanders was called for holding Clark, making first and goal at the 4, and Riggs carried for three yards and one to make it 24-7.
Fans celebrated by tossing their giveaway seat cushions onto the field, then began chanting, "We want Dallas."
The Redskins' locker room celebration was subdued, with Coleman saying: "This is one step. If we win next week and go to the Super Bowl, you'll see huge smiles all around."
Gibbs agreed. "Well, it's great," he said, "but to tell you the truth, I don't want either Dallas or Detroit. They'll both be tough. But we'll wait and see what happens and take our chances."