The first came early, in week two against New Orleans. A loss would have left them 0-2, facing a tough stretch that included back-to-back road division games in the hyper-competitive NFC East. They were peering over the edge of a cliff, one that a team with a rookie head coach and endless list of question marks might never have recovered from.
A late offensive surge, keyed by Jason Campbell’s fourth-quarter touchdown bomb to Santana Moss, averted that potential disaster and propelled the team to a 6-2 first half—a start that caught the football world by surprise and dramatically raised expectations for 2008.
The second must-win game came Sunday in Seattle, appropriately enough the very place Washington’s two most recent playoff teams have seen their January dreams snuffed out.
For the second time this year, the Redskins came through. And for the second time, with everything on the line, it was their much-maligned offense that rose to the occasion.
The early returns certainly didn’t point that direction. Against the NFL’s 29th-ranked defense, the Redskins first four possessions gave little reason to believe they’d snap out of the steady downward slide they had been on for several weeks:
3 plays, 2 yards, Punt
6 plays, 16 yards, Punt
9 plays, 53 yards, Missed FG
9 plays, 31 yards, Punt
Starting at 10:14 of the 2nd quarter, however, Seattle’s defense either found their true level, or the Redskins offense re-established theirs. I suspect, as is usually the case, it was some combination of both. Discounting the last possession before the half, when they got the ball at their own 32 with 29 seconds to play and ended up taking a knee, the rest of the Redskins’ offensive possessions on the day played out like this:
11 plays, 62 yards, TD
11 plays, 49 yards, FG
3 plays, 35 yards, TD
10 plays, 64 yards, FG
11 plays, 74 yards, Fumble
The overall trend is clear; they controlled the ball, avoided mistakes, converted third downs and, most importantly, scored points. The last two possessions in particular are the ones that really stood out.
The Redskins took over on their own 31 with 13:19 remaining in the game. Seattle had just scored to tie it up, 17-17, swinging momentum their way and igniting their famously disruptive “12th man” crowd.
The Redskins answered. A methodical 10-play drive, 64-yard drive, burning 4 minutes, culminated in a chip-shot field goal to reclaim the lead and quiet the crowd.
[They had a golden chance to score seven there, but were unable to convert on 3rd-and-inches at the Seattle 5. Campbell’s short rollout pass to Mike Sellers bounced off the fullback’s hands and fell incomplete. I would have loved to see a simple QB sneak behind Randy Thomas there (less room for error), but that’s with the benefit of hindsight. Bottom line, the Redskins offense rose to the occasion and reestablished control of the game.]
The last drive, though, is the one that had, and has, me smiling.
After the short FG put them up 20-17, the Redskins defense held and forced a Seattle punt. Seahawks punter Jon Ryan executed a perfect lob wedge that was downed at the Redskins 4 yard line, where the offense took over with 7:05 to go.
As I suspect was the case with many of you, at that point I was thinking three line plunges and punting right back. With the Redskins backed up in their own end and the 12th man raining madness around them, I was thinking best case was probably a punt that would set Seattle up at midfield. From there, a tying field goal might have seemed a good outcome ... and a dagger of a touchdown a distinct possibility.
So what happened?
The Redskins answered. Again.
Other than Campbell’s bomb to Santana Moss to save the game—and arguably the young season—against the Saints in week two, what happened next was the most important and potentially resonant contribution the offense has made all year.
Portis for 9
Portis for 11
Portis for 20
First down, WAS 44. Time remaining, 5:15.
Loudest crowd in pro football? Reduced to a dull roar.
Betts for 3
Betts for 1
Campbell to Moss for 13
First down, SEA 39. Time remaining, 3:11.
12th man? Sitting, grumbling.
Me? Standing, clenching fists.
Campbell for 8 (!)
Portis for 1
Portis for 6
First down, SEA 24. Time remaining, 1:46.
Except, of course, it wasn’t.
Betts for 1 … and tell me you’re kidding.
I could write an entire column on that play, but I won’t. Shawn Springs’ interception off a bad decision by Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck on the next play rendered it moot.
Point is, but for a flukey brain-lapse (it was a fluke, right Mr. Betts?) the game would have been over. Two safe line plunges or kneel-downs would have left two solid fourth-down options--a makeable (around 40 yard) FG attempt for a 6-point lead with less than 30 ticks left, or another line plunge to bleed more precious seconds off the clock, leaving Seattle around their own 30 with no time outs, a wing and a prayer.
From their own goal line, facing a defense primed to stop the run and buoyed by an ear-splitting din, the Redskins calmly drove the ball down Seattle's proverbial throat.
The numbers—11 plays, 74 yards, 5:37 time of possession—don’t begin to tell the story. That wasn’t just another Sunday drive. It was clutch. It was big time. And it may prove dividends down the road we cannot begin to quantify today.
No, it doesn’t necessarily mean Washington is ready to run the ball down New York and Baltimore's throats the next two weeks. Even with the madness of their crowd behind them, Seattle’s defense is not in the same class as the Giants and Ravens.
And no, it won’t necessarily propel the Redskins on a second-half playoff run.
But the kind of drive—the kind of drives—the Redskins put together, when they absolutely had to have them, are the building blocks contenders are made of.
Those blocks don’t come easy, and they don’t come often. You earn them, in the toughest circumstances, when things seem to be slipping away. The Redskins aren't done building—perennial contenders are not quick in the making—but Sunday they added one damn fine block of granite to the foundation.
Yes there are still concerns ...
NFL teams pay attention—they’ll be attacking the edges of the Redskins run defense. The defensive line still generates dangerously little pass rush up the middle. Offensively the passing game is still hit-and-miss, with a quarterback learning on the fly and a line better suited to run than pass blocking. And oh yeah, the head coach is still a rookie.
... but those problems also existed when the Redskins were 4-1 and 6-2—they simply overcame them. Sunday on the west coast, they overcame them again, and for the second time this year, it was their work-in-progress offense that stepped up and took over a game the team simply had to have.
Sure, it could be the two seize-the-moment drives were a tease ... as much a function of an opponents’ defensive shortcomings as a re-emergence of the Redskins offense ... but it didn’t feel like on Sunday night. And today, with a few days to digest the whole thing, it still doesn’t.
Pushed to the brink in a fiercely hostile environment, with a game and arguably realistic playoff hopes on the line, the Redskins dug deep and went toe-to-toe with failure.
They’re still standing.
Never underestimate that. The next time this team finds itself staring into the abyss, when they absolutely have to dig in their heels to make a stand, they’ll find the footing that much firmer.