Minutes earlier, Shawn Springs had made the kind of play -- an interception of a deflected pass deep in San Diego territory with the game tied -- he was sure would result in a Washington Redskins victory that would jump-start a late-season playoff drive and erase the bitter memories of late losses to Tampa Bay and Oakland.
But when his futile chase of the Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson ended yesterday, all of those thoughts were out of Springs' mind. He spiked his helmet into the turf and quickly walked off the field following a third straight come-from-ahead defeat, this one 23-17 to San Diego after Tomlinson's 41-yard touchdown run 34 seconds into overtime.
"This is just bad. ... It should have never come to this," Springs said in a silent Redskins locker room. "We keep finding ways to mess things up."
The third chapter in the Redskins' second-half collapse was particularly galling. They led 17-7 with just more than 18 minutes left, the defense had limited Tomlinson to 66 yards through three quarters and the offense was doing just enough.
San Diego, though, did what Tampa Bay and Oakland had done the previous two weeks -- controlled the fourth quarter to reduce the Redskins' playoff chances. But it took some work and luck.
Springs' interception on a pass deflected by Marcus Washington gave the Redskins possession at the Chargers 31-yard line with 1:04 left. But a sequence that included a critical holding penalty on Casey Rabach moved the Redskins back, and John Hall's 52-yard field goal attempt with 30 seconds left was wide right.
San Diego (7-4) won the coin toss in overtime, and on the first play Drew Brees threw 24 yards to tight end Antonio Gates, who became open when Sean Taylor and LaVar Arrington bit on a play fake. Tomlinson then ran through the line and Ryan Clark's attempted tackle to continue the Redskins' misery and make former Washington and current San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer a winner in his return to FedEx Field.
"It [stinks] that we have to give the same speech every week, but it's our fault," Clark said. "If you want to be the so-called strength of the team, you have to show it. You can't just play well for two quarters."
The Redskins (5-6), who have lost 10 consecutive games to AFC opponents, likely need to win their five remaining games to make the postseason for the first time since 1999. They trail Dallas (7-4) and the New York Giants (7-4) by two games in the NFC East.
"Focus on five games?" Springs asked. "[Heck], we can't even win one right now. ... I guess we have to realize what happened the last three weeks has become a trend. Not to discredit other teams, but we've played well enough to beat all of them. We can't do anything but blame ourselves."
The three-game losing streak is only the third of Joe Gibbs' coaching career. And his team has lost three straight by less than six points for only the second time.
"For me personally, this is about a tough a stretch as I've been through," he said.
Tough because the Redskins were in position to win each game. The Redskins led Tampa Bay by seven points with five minutes remaining but lost 36-35; led Oakland by 10 at halftime but lost 16-13; and led San Diego by 10 yesterday only to give up 16 unanswered points.
"This game has me really confused," Arrington said. "I just don't know how we can continue to let these things happen. We just keep letting games get away the same way over and over again."
Kept in check most of the game, Tomlinson gained 129 of his 184 yards in the final quarter and overtime. His 1-yard touchdown gave San Diego a 7-3 lead in the first half, and his 32-yard run with 3:29 left in regulation tied the score at 17-17.
"The hole was wide open," Tomlinson said of his league-leading 17th rushing touchdown. "It was just me and the safety. At that time, I was thinking there was no way I would go down."
The Redskins built a 17-7 lead on Santana Moss' 22-yard touchdown catch and Rock Cartwright's 13-yard run, but the offense did nothing in the fourth quarter while Tomlinson ran roughshod. Five possessions resulted in four punts (including three three-and-outs) and a missed field goal.
Springs' interception, his first of the season, came when Brees was looking for Vincent Jackson on the right sideline.
"I felt like we were definitely going to win," Washington said. "You don't quite relax until it's over, but you think you had it and exhale a little bit and go, 'Woo, this is the day we win a close one.'"
Said quarterback Mark Brunell: "Getting it back in point-blank field goal range was a gift."
Following a 6-yard run by Clinton Portis, Gibbs called a run to the middle of the field by Portis. Rabach, though, was called for a 10-yard penalty when he tackled Jamal Williams from behind, moving the ball back to the San Diego 35. Portis gained nothing on second down, and Brunell threw incomplete on third down, setting up Hall's field goal attempt. The kick fell wide right.
"There was a slight wind in our face, but I would have been [ticked], if they didn't send me out there because I felt I could make it," Hall said. "It was a very difficult kick."
The Redskins now face a difficult road. They have Dallas and the Giants at home next month, but by that time, it may not matter. The Redskins play at St. Louis and Arizona the next two weeks and haven't won on the road since the miracle in Dallas two-plus months ago.
"I've been through some tough ones, but this is definitely one of the toughest," left tackle Chris Samuels said. "From here on out, we have to win. We've put ourselves into this situation, and now we have to find a way to battle out of it."