The inches - or inch - that separated the Eagles’ Reggie Brown from the winning touchdown Sunday … that’s kinda the NFL in a nutshell, isn’t it? It’s not so much whether the ball bounces your way; it’s whether the inches bounce your way. (If, indeed, inches bounce. Some scientific studies have shown that they slither, and one at the University of Glasgow found that they don’t bounce, they flounce.)
But be that as it may, so little distinguishes one club from another in the NFL. After their oh-so-close 10-3 loss to the Redskins, the Eagles left FedEx Field with an 8-6-1 record and a prayer - albeit a Hail Mary - of making the playoffs. The home team, meanwhile, left with an 8-7 record and no postseason hope at all, even though it swept Philadelphia this season.
See what I mean? In the end, it almost always comes down to a hair-splitting contest. The Redskins won the Inches Battle last year, when they secured the last playoff berth with a 9-7 mark, and they lost it this year, even though they might finish with the same mark.
There are times when the whole season seems to rest on a replay decision or two … or on a few teams missing or making a first down by a sliver. And that, of course, is just the how the NFL wants it. If the league could keep all 32 teams in playoff contention heading into Week 17, it would do it.
For a few nervous moments Sunday night, it looked like the inches might not bounce the Redskins’ way yet again. Brown appeared dangerously close to breaking the plane of the goal line when he leaped and caught Donovan McNabb’s pass on the final play of the game. Would there be a camera angle that gave the referee enough reasonable doubt to reverse the ruling of “no touchdown”?
On one level, it didn’t matter. The Falcons were only a few minutes from a win at Minnesota that would eliminate the Redskins from the postseason picture. But on another level, it mattered a lot. You don’t want to head into the offseason having dropped your last four or - pending next week’s outcome at San Francisco - even five straight games. Then it would feel like you were starting over instead of Building a Better Tomorrow.
So when referee Jerome Boger finally issued his decision, upholding the original call, it gave the Redskins a sense of release. Jim Zorn could stop beating himself up with that “worst coach in America” nonsense, and the players could - for a week, anyway - stop questioning themselves and continue trying to salvage something of the season.
Zorn was so into the game, he ran out on the field late in the first half - quite a ways out on the field - to make sure someone hadn’t improperly “nudged” the ball forward and given the Eagles a few extra inches. (There are those inches again.) An official shooed him back to the sideline as if he were an overzealous autograph seeker, but the coach got his point across. The ball was moved back to where it should have been.
It was, in so many respects, a typical December football game … or rather, a typical NFC East December football game - cold, windy, dominated by defense. Had Jason Taylor not sacked Donovan McNabb and caused a fumble at the outset of the third quarter, setting up the only touchdown of the day, the two teams might still be playing.
On only two series did the Eagles move the ball more than 17 yards. On only one possession did the Redskins move the ball more than 30. But as Jason Campbell put it, “The offense did a great job of ball control. We didn’t score a lot of points, but our time of possession [33 minutes, 14 seconds] kept the defense fresh. And at the end of the game, they needed that.”
They certainly did. Greg Blache’s unit held on, though, just as it did earlier in the season when the Redskins were finding ways to win. LaRon Landry’s goal line hit on Brown may not rank up there with Ken Houston’s stop of the Cowboys’ Walt Garrison on the 1-yard line Way Back When or Darrell Green’s breakup of that last-gasp pass to the Vikings’ Darrin Nelson in the 1987 NFC title game, but it sure was a game saver - and maybe a self-respect saver, too.
“I knew he didn’t get in the end zone,” Landry said. “I lined up right on the goal line, knowing they had to go for the touchdown. He didn’t get past me, so it couldn’t have been a touchdown.”
Perhaps, but stranger things have happened in this NFL season. Isn’t that right, Ed Hochuli?
So the bleeding at long last has been stopped. The Redskins’ three-game losing streak is just a bad memory, though the disappointment of failing to take advantage of a 6-2 start is apt to linger in Ashburn for some time. After all, it wouldn’t have taken much for this season to have ended differently for the Snydermen. They just needed to have more of the inches bounce, slither or - depending on who you talk to - flounce their way.
A few more TDs wouldn’t have hurt, either. They’ve only scored seven in the second half of the season - one per game. On Sunday, miraculously, one just happened to be enough. It was quite the Christmas present.