Jason Campbell felt Lawyer Milloy tugging on the back of his jersey, but he knew the Washington Redskins' offense had lost all momentum and could ill afford a sack that would take them out of field goal range.
So he did what young quarterbacks sometimes do under duress: He tried to make a play that wasn't there and instead made a critical mistake.
Atlanta Falcons defensive end Chauncey Davis corralled Campbell's throw-away flip and returned it 41 yards. Two plays later, Michael Vick's 22-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins capped a Falcons comeback that produced a 24-14 win over the Redskins yesterday at FedEx Field.
A game that started so promisingly for the Redskins' offense -- it scored touchdowns on its first two possessions, and Campbell threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss on his second attempt of the day -- ended in more disappointment. The offense stalled, and the defense was run over by the Falcons' league-leading rushing attack.
Leading 14-0 with 2:43 left in the first quarter, the Redskins allowed the Falcons to score the final 24 points. The loss dropped the Redskins' record to 4-8, realistically ending their already-slim postseason hopes. It was the biggest lead the Redskins had squandered since Gibbs' return in 2004.
"We started the game off doing some really good things and game-plan wise, it was what we like to do and what we wanted to do," said Gibbs, who conducted his postgame briefing with a bloody right hand that he caught on a door entering the locker room. "Somewhere in there, we quit making plays, made some bad plays and they picked up the momentum."
The Redskins rushed for 177 yards, including a career-high 155 by Ladell Betts. But Campbell struggled (18-for-38 for 218 yards and two interceptions).
"I try to take something from each game and from each situation," Campbell said. "You grow with the pains and keep your head up."
Said associate head coach-offense Al Saunders: "Jason played like a young quarterback today. He did some really good things and is growing each week. But there were some things he would like to have back. But that will be the case almost every week."
Even with Campbell laboring, the Redskins produced 382 yards, their most since Week 4. But that became moot because of Campbell's two interceptions, Shaun Suisham's missed 50-yard field goal and a defense that was gashed for a season-high 256 rushing yards and gave up drives of 73, 60 and 98 yards.
"We knew they would run the ball, so there's no excuse," defensive end Phillip Daniels said.
The loss was especially frustrating because of how well things started. The Redskins marched 69 and 70 yards on their first two possessions, capped by Betts' 8-yard touchdown run and the Campbell-to-Moss connection. Moss had a season-high seven catches for 123 yards.
The Redskins' final 11 drives, though, gained a total of 243 yards. Most puzzling was some of the play selection. The Redskins ran on 12 of their first 14 plays. After that Betts had only four more carries the rest of the half as Atlanta rallied to 14-10 at halftime.
"The way we started out, I felt like we were operating as well as we had all year," Gibbs said. "And then we couldn't sustain it."
Said Betts: "I'm not going to question the play-calling right now. We were effective running the ball when we did run it."
Reserve running back Rock Cartwright didn't question the play-calling but voiced his view.
"Ladell was in the zone today so feed him," he said. "When somebody is running as good as he is, feed him and he would have made more plays. I think we got away from some of those things. That's my own opinion."
Saunders defended the play-calling, saying the plan was to work the edges of the Falcons' defense and then mix it up to allow Campbell some throwing opportunities.
The Redskins appeared to be back in business to start the second half when they moved to the Falcons 20. But Betts lost a yard on first down, and Campbell's ill-advised throw-away attempt was intercepted by Davis.
"I was trying to shake him and keep the play alive and make a throw, but then he grabbed the back of my jersey," Campbell said. "Then I tried to throw it away and keep us in field position."
Atlanta took its first lead when Vick found Jenkins on a post pattern. The Falcons' relentless running game took its toll on the Redskins' defense as Atlanta averaged 6.2 yards. Jerious Norwood gained 107 yards on just nine carries, including an insurance 69-yard touchdown run with 12:25 remaining. Warrick Dunn added 87 yards, and Vick scrambled 10 times for 59 yards.
Vick the passer wasn't bad either. Though he finished just 8-for-16 for 122 yards, he threw two touchdowns as Atlanta (6-6) snapped a four-game losing streak. The Falcons remain alive for a playoff berth. But the Redskins would need four straight wins and a collapse by several other teams.
"This was a game we definitely needed and a game we had to have to stay in the hunt, and to let it slip away is bad," Daniels said. "I thought the win would happen when we led 14-0 early. But we have to realize we have to keep playing."