EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Robert Griffin III trudged off the field alone late Sunday afternoon. All but one of his Washington Redskins teammates had disappeared into the locker room after the New York Giants ripped out their collective heart in the cruelest fashion. Griffin lagged behind, and as a handful of photographers captured his walk, he contemplated the latest painful lesson of his rookie season.
Leave it to Rex Grossman, that steadfast source of veteran-quarterbacking wisdom, to crystallize it for him. Life in the NFL, Grossman told him, includes wins when you should have lost and losses in games you believe you should have won.
"This," Griffin said, "is a game that we should have won."
What else could Griffin have thought after New York escaped with a 27-23 victory following a frenetic series of punches and counterpunches in the fourth quarter?
His brilliant 30-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss put the Redskins ahead with 1:32 remaining. But only 19 seconds later, Giants quarterback Eli Manning, owner of two Super Bowl rings because of moments just like this, upstaged him with a 77-yard touchdown pass to Victor Cruz.
Victory for the Redskins became defeat. First place in the NFC East became last place. And they headed home wondering, again, how breakdowns in the secondary continue to outweigh how Griffin has galvanized their offense.
"Right now," Griffin said, "it's kind of hard to know what to think."
This would have been an incredible win. The Redskins were one blown coverage away from beating the defending Super Bowl champs in their stadium, from overcoming Griffin's two second-half turnovers, a lost fumble by running back Alfred Morris and the season-ending left Achilles tendon tear tight end Fred Davis suffered in the first quarter.
Instead, they're 3-4 and in last place. What transpired in the final moments was a microcosm of their season. Griffin and the offense made enough plays to win, and the defense couldn't hold the lead.
"That was a tough one," coach Mike Shanahan said.
The final 17 minutes of play were an up-and-down thrill ride with Griffin at the controls. The Giants broke a 13-13 tie early in the fourth quarter on Ahmad Bradshaw's 1-yard touchdown plunge. They needed seven plays to score after Griffin threw an interception on a pass intended for tight end Logan Paulsen over the middle. Quarterback and receiver said it was a miscommunication, perhaps a consequence of Davis' injury.
Griffin then lost a fumble on the next possession. He didn't secure the ball after faking an inside handoff, and Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul jarred it loose. The Redskins' Superman apparently was stuck somewhere in a phone booth.
But, oh, did he arrive just in time.
The Redskins were down to their last breath, trailing 20-16 with 2:07 to play. On fourth and 10 from their 23, Griffin extended the play by rolling left. Pierre-Paul chased him, but Griffin juked free. And as he stood dangerously close to crossing the line of scrimmage, he zipped a 19-yard completion to Paulsen.
As soon as the play was over, you knew it was one of those iconic RG3 moments, a special display of his poise and athleticism.
"I'm pretty mad at the football gods for putting him in the NFC East," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said. "To face that guy twice a year is going to be a headache. He takes away from your enthusiasm for the game a little bit."
The Redskins had new life. Three plays later, Griffin lobbed a touchdown to Moss to put Washington ahead, 23-20. Moss ran past rookie cornerback Jayron Hosley down the seam. "Perfect throw," Moss said. "Perfect touch. Put it in the air where I could run to it."
"I saw one high safety, the safety rolled the other way, and I've got Santana Moss one-on-one against a rookie," Griffin said.
He grinned, aware of the irony in him exploiting a rookie.
"I'm a rookie myself," he said, "but you have to take advantage of that."
It was an epic comeback. And it was gone in 19 seconds.
Manning redeemed himself from two earlier interceptions. Cruz, from the right slot, ran past cornerback Josh Wilson and free safety Madieu Williams. It was double coverage, Shanahan said.
Given the situation, the Redskins could not afford to be beaten deep, yet that's exactly what happened. Neither Wilson nor Williams offered insight after the game.
"They made a play," Williams said, echoing Wilson's quote.
Griffin had one last chance. He believed the Redskins would prevail, but the magic ran out.
Moss fumbled at the Redskins' 43-yard line. He initially protected the ball with two hands, but he lost it when he braced himself to hit the ground after linebacker Chase Blackburn hit him.
When the ride finally stopped, and the Redskins ended in a valley, Griffin expressed pride that he put the team in position to win despite his two turnovers.
He finished speaking to reporters, slipped a backpack over his shoulders and pulled a suitcase behind him. He walked out of MetLife Stadium a little smarter and no less determined.
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