- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2000


The game started yesterday afternoon, but another spurt of surprises for the ever-unpredictable Washington Redskins pushed it into prime time. Then the player with that nickname took over.

Redskins cornerback Deion Sanders, the 1990's No. 1 punt returner and the flamboyant star best known as Prime Time, overcame five game's worth of mediocre punt returns and the questions that accompanied them to take one back 57 yards in overtime.

Sanders' return set up Michael Husted's game-winning 20-yard field goal, shelved the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' miraculous rally from a 10-point deficit, and allowed the Redskins to secure a 20-17 victory before 83,532 at FedEx Field. Washington, just two weeks after its season appeared in ruins, moved into first place in the NFC East.

"All you doubters, there's room on the bandwagon," said Sanders, whose 3.4-yard return average entering the game ranked 27th in the NFL. "But I'm not taking any applications, because you all have been writing as if I've been trying to get tackled on punt returns. As if I'm not dodging the first few guys after I catch the ball. It's all right. I'm a forgiving man."

The Redskins (3-2) now have a two-game winning streak and a good bit of momentum as their brutal October schedule heads into Philadelphia (3-2) Sunday with first place in the NFC East on the line. In addition, they have what could be an important tie-breaker edge over the Bucs (3-2), another top contender for the late rounds of the playoffs.

To earn those positives, the Redskins had to overcome several negatives, including the stunning occurrence of an overtime period and the loss of another offensive lineman. Starting right guard Tre Johnson could miss several games after leaving in the first quarter with a sprained knee the initial injury that ended up sidelining starting center Cory Raymer for the season.

Even without Johnson, Washington's top interior bruiser, the Redskins won a grueling battle of field position. Tampa Bay, entering with the league's fifth-ranked rushing offense, picked up just 72 yards on the ground, while Washington running back Stephen Davis had a season-high 141 yards on 28 carries.

"I've answered the question about character and chemistry 9,000 times," Redskins coach Norv Turner said. "This team has unbelievable chemistry, and it has great character. We knew what we were getting into in this game: field position, [a] fight, a physical battle. That's what it was."

Tampa Bay also entered with the league's most heralded defense, but it was Washington's that came through with the biggest performance. The Redskins held the Bucs to just 255 yards and just 134 before Tampa Bay began its incredible rally from a 17-7 deficit with less than four minutes left in regulation.

The Bucs' surge started when quarterback Shaun King picked up his own third-and-10 fumble and hit Reidel Anthony for a 46-yard touchdown. Then, after the Redskins failed to run out the final two minutes and had a 35-yard field goal attempt blocked King picked up a second fumble and hit Keyshawn Johnson for a 19-yard gain, which set up Martin Gramatica's game-tying 42-yard field goal as time expired.

Ironically, the Redskins were beaten by Tampa Bay in the 1999 NFC semifinals, in part, because Warrick Dunn converted a key third down by picking up a King fumble and rushing for a first down.

"I'm going to tell the guys to stop knocking the ball out of Shaun King's hands," Turner said. "Every time we do it, he picks it up and throws it to someone for a big play."

But Washington's defense held strong in the overtime period, allowing the Bucs just 1 yard. Sanders' big return then came with 2:05 elapsed, on the game's 19th punt. It left Washington at the Tampa Bay 8, and Husted kicked the game-winner four plays later.

"I'm glad I don't listen to all [the media], because I've been recommended for the past two weeks to get Deion out of there on punt returns," Turner said. "I'm glad I'm stubborn… . It was good timing. It's nice when a guy makes you look smart."

The Redskins hold the division tie-breaker over the New York Giants (3-2) thanks to a 16-6 victory over the Giants on Sept. 24. New York, 3-0 before losing to Washington, lost again yesterday 28-14 at the Tennessee Titans.

The Redskins tacked on what appeared to be an insurance touchdown with 3:57 left in the fourth quarter, when fullback Larry Centers caught a 9-yard scoring pass. Centers, returning after missing the Giants game with a hyperextended elbow, finished with eight catches once again to lead the Redskins.

Centers' reception capped a scoring drive of just 26 yards, thanks to Darrell Green stripping the ball from Keyshawn Johnson. Green also had an interception in the first quarter, the 51st of his career.

The Bucs' second-longest drive of the second half began with 4:36 left in the third quarter. Runs by Tampa Bay fullback Mike Alstott (46 yards on 15 carries) and several big throws by King (19-for-38, 202 yards, one touchdown, one interception) moved the Bucs from their own 11 to the Redskins' 22. But King missed receivers on second and third downs, and David Terrell partially blocked a 40-yard attempt by Gramatica.

The Redskins took their first lead on a 29-yard field goal by Husted. The kick, giving Washington a 10-7 lead with 7:51 left in the third quarter, capped a 10-play, 58-yard drive. A 23-yard reception by Irving Fryar propelled the possession, coming one play before Davis busted a 14-yard run that put the Redskins in field-goal range.

That one-two punch also gave Washington its first touchdown. Fryar caught a 29-yard pass late in the second quarter when he found a deep seam on a crossing pattern, and Davis followed with a 50-yard run that tied the game 7-7. Davis' dash came on a sweep right he turned upfield, as Tampa Bay linebacker Jamie Duncan overplayed and cornerback Bryan Kelly got turned around.

A sack of Brad Johnson (20-for-32, 207 yards, one touchdown) set up Tampa Bay's first touchdown. Johnson lost the ball while being surrounded by three Bucs, with nose tackle Anthony McFarland making the initial hit. Free safety Damien Robinson recovered the fumble at Washington's 25, and a 15-yard completion to Dunn converted a third-and-8 and led to Alstott's 2-yard scoring rumble.

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