When the final seconds ticked off the clock Sunday night and the Washington Redskins had vanquished their rival to complete one of the greatest turnarounds in NFL history, Reed Doughty sprinted onto the field. He jumped and pumped his fist and thrust his helmet into the air.
The seven-year veteran safety was on the last Redskins playoff team five years ago, and he suffered through the ineptitude and dysfunction that bridged that postseason run to this one. Of all the highs and lows along the way, this experience was unique.
The Redskins defeated the Dallas Cowboys, 28-18, to win their first NFC East division title in 13 years. Doughty, seated at his locker, marveled at the seven-game winning streak that got the Redskins here and the signature defensive performance Sunday night that crowned them as champions.
"Just an opportunity like this after a 3-6 start, I mean, it's one of those situations where you don't give up, but it looks bleak," Doughty said. "I'm just thankful we had this opportunity."
Washington's defense earned it by playing much better since returning from the bye week Nov. 18 and complementing the NFL's top-ranked offense. And they completed the mission Sunday with an iconic performance that sent them soaring into the playoffs.
Rookie running back Alfred Morris rushed for 200 yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries, and hobbled quarterback Robert Griffin III scored on a 10-yard run.
The defense, meanwhile, relentlessly blitzed Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, intercepted him three times and allowed their third-lowest point total of the season. It was an appropriate exclamation point for a defense that has overcome a slew of injuries in becoming a vital part of Washington's winning formula.
"It really is the perfect ending to the story," nose tackle Barry Cofield said. "It's a culmination of ... guys buying in week after week, coaches growing and getting better, players growing and getting better, and we all came together and played the type of defensive game that can win you a championship."
An ending to the regular season, yes, but Washington's magical ride continues. The Redskins will host the Seattle Seahawks (11-5) at 4:30 on Sunday in the first playoff game at FedEx Field since Jan. 2000. The winner will advance to play either Atlanta or San Francisco the following week.
The scenes of jubilation on the Redskins' sideline and in the stands were beyond imagination eight weeks ago.
After the injury-depleted Redskins fell to 3-6 on Nov. 4 by losing at home to the one-win Carolina Panthers, coach Mike Shanahan spoke of evaluating players to see who "is going to be on your football team for years to come."
In his next breath that day, though, Shanahan noted how the Redskins were not mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.
As it turns out, that served as the prologue for an epic turnaround. .
Washington became the fifth team ever to qualify for the playoffs after starting the season 3-6. It took each of seven consecutive victories to get there.
Their reward was the NFC East division title, the franchise's first since the 1999 season. Even Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, who returned to the team in 2004 and oversaw two playoff berths, did not win the division in his second tenure, which lasted four seasons.
Sunday night, then, validated Shanahan's rebuilding project in its third year.
"I'm really proud of our football team," Shanahan said. "For them to fight for seven weeks to put themselves in this position just says a lot about who they are and what level they've played at for about seven weeks. That we accomplished our first goal [is] really a tribute to the character of the guys in that locker room."
The atmosphere inside the locker room was upbeat but subdued. Some players wore black hats that read "Champions" across the front. There was no champagne or any other rowdiness. Linebacker Brian Orakpo, who suffered a season-ending pectoral muscle tear in Week 2, shouted about the turnaround from a 4-12 record in 2009, but players mostly tempered their outward displays of emotion.
Throughout the room, defensive players praised coordinator Jim Haslett and his staff for their ingenuity in crafting a game plan that pressured Romo.
"Usually we've been bringing pressure off the edges," said linebacker Perry Riley, whose blitz helped force linebacker Rob Jackson's game-clinching interception with 3:06 remaining. "Today our coaches put up a great plan getting pressure up the middle, getting pressure in his face so he can't really see downfield or have a clear view of everything. He kind of had to rush the throws."
Coaches supplemented that by playing more man-to-man coverage than they did on Thanksgiving when they beat Dallas, 38-31, on the road.
Cornerback DeAngelo Hall followed Cowboys star receiver Dez Bryant all around the field. Bryant finished with four catches for 71 yards. Bryant did not score a touchdown for the first time in eight games.
"Our coaches challenged us on the back end to stand up," Hall said.
They answered that call and in the process restored the defense's sullied reputation. The Redskins allowed 27.6 points per game during their 3-6 start. They have surrendered an average of only 20 during the seven-game winning streak.
"We knew we were capable," Doughty said. "We've had some injuries and some learning when different guys are out there and working together. We shuffle a lot of personnel, and so everybody has to be on their 'A' game knowing where everybody fits and what we're going to do. I feel like we've done that. We've adapted."
It's why the Redskins are champions once again.
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