The climb back to .500 remains steep. Several rosterwide problems remain unresolved. And at 3-5, the Washington Redskins seem unlikely to make a run to playoff contention in the second half of this season.
The difficulties of a disappointing year thus far and the gloomy prospects for November and December yesterday were displaced -- temporarily, anyway -- for the Redskins by the dramatic twists and last-second turns of the latest renewal of their biggest rivalry: the would-be game-winning field goal that Nick Novak missed in the final minute, the blocked field goal by Troy Vincent that kept the Redskins alive, the wild return of that block by Sean Taylor that gave Novak a shot at redemption and his team a chance at victory.
The Redskins left FedEx Field yesterday with a thrilling 22-19 victory over the Dallas Cowboys that ended a three-game losing streak and gave them at least a little hope for the rest of the season.
"It's something this team needed, to know that if we keep fighting and never give up, good things will happen," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "Hopefully this will propel us to some good things down the road."
The road to this victory, especially the final moments, was full of twists and turns.
Novak missed a 49-yard field goal with half a minute remaining. Dallas drove into field goal range with three completions by Tony Romo. Vincent blocked a 35-yard field goal attempt by Mike Vanderjagt that would have given the Cowboys victory. Taylor picked up the ball and returned it 30 yards to the Dallas 44. And Novak made a 47-yard attempt -- a kick with no time remaining that was made possible by a Dallas face mask penalty on Taylor's return.
"I went from being the most hated guy in town to I don't know what in about one minute," Novak said. "I'm just happy I got a chance to redeem myself. Just to see my teammates come out to the field and tackle me was one of the greatest things I've been a part of."
The first person to greet Novak was Vincent, who wasn't even on the roster three weeks ago. Discarded by Buffalo, Vincent signed with the Redskins and, in his second game, started at safety in place of Adam Archuleta. In a 15-year NFL career, it was Vincent's first blocked kick.
Minus Vincent's heroics, the Redskins' slim playoff chances would have been extinguished.
The Redskins remain in the NFC East cellar, three games behind the first-place New York Giants. Still, a loss yesterday would have sent them to Philadelphia next week to face the Eagles on a four-game losing streak.
"I don't know if I've experienced anything like that," coach Joe Gibbs said. "There were so many plays that could have gone either way."
For the game's first 59 minutes, 29 seconds, the game could be labeled as interesting but certainly not bizarre. The teams fought to a 19-19 tie. Dallas got two touchdown passes from Romo and two field goals by Vanderjagt. The Redskins answered with a Lemar Marshall safety, touchdowns by Clinton Portis and Chris Cooley and a field goal by Novak.
But then all heck broke loose. Cue the chaos:
35 seconds: Novak came on the field for a 49-yard field goal attempt that he missed wide right. Special teams coach Danny Smith told Gibbs to place the ball in the middle or on the right hash since Novak's two misses against Indianapolis came from the left hash. But that plan went awry when Portis was stuffed for a 3-yard loss. Novak had to kick again from the left hash, and he again misfired.
"I knew right away that I pushed it," he said.
13 seconds: Following three Dallas snaps, Romo found tight end Jason Witten over the middle for a 28-yard gain. The Cowboys called a timeout.
"All we had to do was kick the field goal," Dallas coach Bill Parcells said.
Six seconds: Vanderjagt, who entered the game as the most accurate kicker in NFL history (87.2 percent), lined up for a chip shot. But on a play called "Double Push," Vincent and Carlos Rogers rushed the left side of the Cowboys' line. Witten blocked Rogers, leaving Vincent to block Vanderjagt's kick.
Vincent was put on the field goal team only the night before.
"Witten went out to get Carlos, and I had a good jump on the ball from watching the center snap it," Vincent said.
Said Vanderjagt: "Timing was good, snap was good, hold was good and I hit it good. I've never seen anything like that. I'm sure the ESPN guys are going to have a great time with this one. That's as wild and wacky as it gets."
Taylor picked it up at the Washington 26. Early in the return, his face mask was grabbed by the Cowboys' Kyle Kosier. Taylor streaked down the middle of the field for a 30-yard gain to the Dallas 44. The penalty added 15 yards to the return.
"I was just distraught because I'm looking at [Vanderjagt] and feel that in most cases he'll make that field goal," Gibbs said. "But then you see the explosion of the kick getting blocked, and my thoughts flashed to overtime. But then I saw Sean pick it up. It was a wild play."
Although time had expired, the game was extended by one play because of the penalty.
Zero seconds. Novak came on for the field goal attempt, again from the left hash mark. This kick sailed just inside the right upright.
"I just ran out there and said, 'Don't do what you did on the first one -- keep your head down and kick it solid,' " Novak said. "When I looked up, it was fading back. It barely came back and barely went through."
And the Redskins remain barely alive in the NFC playoff picture. But they also know anything less than a 7-1 second half will mean no postseason.
"I've never felt that before," right guard Randy Thomas said. "I'd hate to be on the other end of this one."