- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Never mind that it came against a team that’s actually in worse shape. Or that it came in unspectacular fashion. Or that it came inside a stadium filled with more snow than fans.

The Washington Redskins won a game yesterday, and for this beleaguered bunch, that was cause enough for celebration.

“We needed this,” cornerback Fred Smoot said inside a jovial Washington locker room following the 20-7 victory over the New York Giants. “We just needed to point-blank show that we can win in this league.”

The Redskins (5-8) haven’t shown that with much frequency, not during their midseason four-game losing streak and not during their now-ended three-game skid. They finally showed it yesterday, building a comfortable second-half lead and never allowing the hapless Giants (4-9) to get back within earshot.

Buoyed by Bruce Smith’s record 199th career sack, a stifling defensive performance and a mistake-free, ball-control offense, Washington won for just the second time in its last nine games and for just the second time in its last 10 NFC East games.

“I think there’s hope,” said coach Steve Spurrier, whose team escaped the NFC East basement. “I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve still got a ways to go to be a real good team, but I think we’re pretty close. Overall, there should be enough talent here to compete in this division.”

If nothing else, the Redskins showed they are in better shape than the Giants. Then again, that probably could be said of the NFL’s other 30 teams right now.

New York’s fifth straight loss couldn’t have been much more embarrassing. The Giants committed three turnovers, had 63 yards of offense in the second half, lost quarterback Kerry Collins to a high ankle sprain in the fourth quarter and did it before a paltry Meadowlands crowd.

Scared off by the frigid weather, not to mention the matchup of two 4-8 teams, Giants fans stayed home in droves. The official paid attendance was announced as 78,217 (a sellout), but the stadium appeared to be less than half full at kickoff, and by the fourth quarter there weren’t more than 5,000 still in their seats.

Redskins cornerback Champ Bailey said he probably hadn’t played in front of such a sparse crowd since high school and couldn’t fault those who never showed.

“It’s cold, man,” Bailey said. “And you’ve got two teams that are 4-8. If I was a fan, I probably wouldn’t have come either.”

The empty stadium and heaping mounds of plowed snow on the sidelines made for a desolate scene. Given the lack of public interest in the game, some might have worried about the Redskins’ level of intensity. From the start, though, that was never an issue.

Washington forced a fumble on the second play, with defensive end Regan Upshaw stripping the ball out of running back Tiki Barber’s hands and Bailey recovering it at the New York 27. The Redskins squandered a first-and-goal opportunity at the 1, ultimately settling for John Hall’s 28-yard field goal, but the tone of the day had been set. Washington had come to play; the Giants had not.

“It wasn’t hard,” linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said, “because you’re playing a division rival.”

Dorsey Levens scored New York’s lone touchdown on a 5-yard run late in the first quarter. The Redskins responded with 17 unanswered points.

One week after turning pass-happy in a 24-20 loss to New Orleans, Spurrier stuck to the ground like never before. Washington ran the ball 48 times for 150 yards, passing just 19 times for 138 net yards.

Starting tailback Trung Canidate wasn’t as explosive as in last week’s 115-yard performance, but he turned into a workhorse against the Giants, picking up 69 yards on 19 rushes before departing early in the third quarter with a sprained foot.

Chad Morton (13 carries, 56 yards) and Rock Cartwright (12 for 19) took over in the second half, making life easy for quarterback Tim Hasselbeck in his second career start.

Hasselbeck, whose level of play in previous games was mostly sporadic, ran a highly efficient offense. No stranger to cold-weather games, the Massachusetts native completed 13 of 19 passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns while wearing a glove on his throwing hand.

He was helped out by some deft catches from his receiving corps and connected with Darnerien McCants and Rod Gardner for short touchdown passes.

“It was hard throwing into the wind,” said Hasselbeck, who earned his first career win. “The receivers came up with some big catches today, coming back for the ball.”

Once they had a lead, the Redskins’ defense took over, going full bore after Collins. Smith, making every possible effort to finally notch his record-breaking sack, knocked the quarterback out of the game in the third quarter on a play that had the Giants screaming afterward.

New York had been called for delay of game, but the officials let the play continue, and Smith wound up taking down Collins, spraining the quarterback’s ankle in the process. Collins had to be carted off the field, and Giants coach Jim Fassel was furious that the officials didn’t blow the play dead immediately.

“It wasn’t my intention to hurt Kerry,” Smith said. “But it was my intention to knock the [heck] out of him.”

Former Spurrier protege Jesse Palmer replaced Collins at quarterback, and the Redskins went right after him. Midway through the fourth quarter, Smith grabbed Palmer by the ankles, dropped him to the ground and rejoiced over his long-awaited, record-breaking sack.

“I’m happy that it has taken place,” Smith said. “Now we can continue to move forward and build upon this ballgame.”

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