- The Washington Times - Monday, December 6, 1999

PONTIAC, Mich. The Washington Redskins started December in first place for the first time since their 1991 Super Bowl season. But if yesterday’s critical 33-17 loss to the Detroit Lions at the Silverdome is any indication of what’s to come, the Redskins won’t finish the season on top of the NFC East.

Washington lost the battle on offense (four turnovers, five sacks) and defense (280 passing yards allowed) and had its early special teams edge negated by giving up a 68-yard punt return touchdown. The Redskins also committed 14 penalties for 122 yards.

“You just can’t make the type of errors we made,” Redskins coach Norv Turner said. “Detroit had an outstanding effort. Some of our errors were forced. Some weren’t. If you’re going to turn the football over and you’re going to give up big plays in the passing game, you’re going to have a tough time winning in this stadium.”

What’s worse was that the Lions making the big plays were quarterback Gus Frerotte, whom Washington benched twice in 1998 and cut in February, and punt returner Desmond Howard, the 1992 first-round pick who the Redskins let go in the 1995 expansion draft.

While Frerotte filling in for the ailing Charlie Batch and Howard signed off waivers Saturday kept the Lions in the NFC Central lead at 8-4, the Redskins fell to 7-5. Washington, which will lose playoff tiebreakers to fellow contenders Detroit and Dallas, also slipped to 0-4 against winning teams.

“Until we beat a winning team, people are going to see us as just another team with a soft schedule,” Washington defensive end Marco Coleman said.

“We didn’t step up to the challenge in the biggest game that we needed to win,” guard Tre Johnson lamented. “It’s indicative of where we are. You can’t sit there and try to hope and wish and pray for something to happen. You have to go out there and take it. We’re not ready to take it. We’re still waiting for somebody else or something. We don’t have whatever it takes. We don’t rise to the occasion.”

That was true of Johnson and the offensive line, which was called for four holding penalties, two false starts and an illegal use of hands. The line allowed Brad Johnson to be sacked five times and get hit countless others. All five linemen were flagged.

“This is one of the most physical days I’ve ever had,” said Brad Johnson, who threw a season-high 43 passes as NFL rushing leader Stephen Davis ran the ball just 12 times. “This is the best front four we’ve faced [and] they were able to tee off on us a little bit.”

The Lions ended their 34-year, 18-game losing streak to the Redskins. Detroit is 6-1 at home and Washington has lost three straight on the road.

“You’ve got to fear no one,” Tre Johnson said. “I don’t care if they’re a tough team and we’re in a dome [where crowd noise can be a huge factor], you’ve got to think They can’t do anything to stop what I’m about to drop on them.’ We haven’t yet stepped up and won the big game to establish ourselves as a next-echelon team.”

The Redskins looked like they were ready to step up early. They took the opening kickoff and drove 62 yards in 14 plays, converting three straight third downs before settling for a 42-yard field goal by Brett Conway. Washington should have had a touchdown, but referee Phil Luckett blew the whistle just after fullback Larry Centers grabbed a pass, which had caromed off Detroit safety Mark Carrier, and dashed the final 30 yards to the end zone. When Luckett reviewed the play, he gave Washington the ball but not the touchdown.

“They got it half-right,” Centers said.

The Lions failed to take advantage of Brad Johnson’s first interception when Coleman sacked Frerotte at the Detroit 45, but they got a 50-yard field goal by Jason Hanson to tie the game on their next possession. The Redskins responded with a 95-yard kickoff return touchdown by James Thrash (his first regular-season score), but Howard returned Conway’s subsequent kickoff 35 yards. Frerotte followed with a 30-yard pass to Germane Crowell and a 23-yard touchdown strike to Herman Moore, who beat Washington rookie cornerback Champ Bailey.

“You always have a little bit of animosity [against the team that cuts you],” said Frerotte, who completed 21 of 32 passes. “I just wanted to show those guys, Hey I can still play.’ ”

The Redskins then went nowhere and when Matt Stevens was whistled for holding on the punt, Matt Turk had to kick again. Howard eluded Curtis Buckley, Sam Shade and Turk en route to the end zone.

“Desmond’s return was big,” Shade said. “That kind of wiped away all we had done early in the game. It gave them a lot of life.”

Frerotte, after the Redskins went three-and-out in 43 seconds, completed three passes to set up Hanson’s 45-yarder. Washington, which had been tied just 3:18 earlier, trailed 20-10 at halftime.

Detroit native Michael Westbrook’s 39-yard touchdown catch 2:39 into the second half closed the gap to 20-17, but Washington netted just 27 yards on its next five series. The last two ended with fumbles. Hanson followed Westbrook’s with a 52-yarder and Luther Elliss ran back the second 11 yards for a score after fellow defensive tackle James Jones sacked Brad Johnson to make it 33-17 with 8:09 left.

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