- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 19, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO — For all the turmoil, all the frustration and all the underachieving that came to embody the Washington Redskins earlier this season, say this about Joe Gibbs’ squad: They never gave up.

And as a result, they’re closing out this otherwise disappointing season in rather impressive fashion and giving fans reason to believe better days may not be that far off.

Not that the Redskins are making postseason plans after yesterday’s 26-16 thumping of the hapless San Francisco 49ers. That dream was quashed weeks ago.

But with two games to go — at Dallas next week, home against Minnesota in the finale — Washington (5-9) has put itself in position to do as coach Joe Gibbs wanted and close out 2004 on a high note.

“The best way to build for the future is to finish strong,” said Gibbs, who won in San Francisco for the first time in six tries. “I’d like to see us finish right.”

So far the Redskins are meeting their coach’s challenge. They’ve won two of their last three games, beating the Giants and 49ers handily, and last week playing one of their most-inspired games in a long time despite losing to the first-place Philadelphia Eagles by three points.

“We’re starting to get it, man,” cornerback Fred Smoot said. “You’ve got to be a blind man not to see that. We’re coming into these games, and we’re playing like we’re going to the playoffs. We’re not just sitting back like the year’s over and we’re going to go home. No, we’re still out here trying to get better.”

It would have been hard not to look good against the 49ers (2-12), who at this point are playing for the top pick in next year’s draft and not much else. The disparity between the two starting lineups on the field was staggering.

The Redskins trotted out the likes of Clinton Portis, Laveranues Coles, Cornelius Griffin and Sean Taylor. The 49ers countered with Ken Dorsey, Maurice Hicks and Dwaine Carpenter.

The home team never had a chance.

Washington set the tone from the start, marching 72 yards on the game-opening drive to take a 7-0 lead. Though San Francisco responded with a touchdown drive of its own, the game was never close after that.

The Redskins drove deep into 49ers territory on their next three drives, and though they had to settle each time for a field goal by new kicker Jeff Chandler, the resulting 16-7 lead was virtually insurmountable.

“It didn’t always look pretty,” Gibbs said. “But I felt our guys fought and played hard, and that is the one thing I like to have in a football team.”

As has been the case all year, Washington relied on its defense to pull this one out. The league’s second-ranked unit surrendered just 183 total yards following the 49ers’ initial scoring drive, and much of that came late during garbage time when Dorsey found Curtis Conway for an 11-yard touchdown to make the final score more respectable.

In between, the Redskins picked off Dorsey four times, the first one nearly leading to a touchdown the other way. Taylor hauled in the pass at his own 15, raced to the 45, lateraled to teammate Lemar Marshall and then rejoiced as Marshall scampered the rest of the way into the end zone.

49ers coach Dennis Erickson, though, challenged the play, and after reviewing it, officials ruled Taylor had illegally lateraled forward to Marshall, wiping out the touchdown.

No problem. Despite giving away two points late in the second quarter when Tom Tupa intentionally kicked a blocked punt out of the end zone, Washington ultimately got its interception-turned-touchdown, courtesy of linebacker Antonio Pierce, who lumbered 78 yards to give his team a 23-9 lead just before halftime.

“We made the plays when we had to, but the crazy thing was we could have had several more,” Pierce said. “That would have been really something if we had turned in a couple more interceptions.”

The Redskins didn’t need to. They simply kept handing the ball off to Portis (35 carries, 110 yards) during the second half, wearing down the San Francisco defense and putting the confidence-building victory away.

“It’s a shame that it’s this late in the season,” said quarterback Patrick Ramsey, who further stated his case for next year’s starting job by completing 18 of 27 for 214 yards and a touchdown. “You’ve got guys who are really playing with confidence now, both offensively and defensively.

“We just need to finish strong. That’s what we have to focus on now. We can’t have a winning record or anything of that nature, so we focus on finishing strong and playing well.”

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