Call them lucky, call them a high-wire act, call them a heart attack waiting to happen. But say this about the Washington Redskins — they do have an uncanny knack for winning close football games.
Their latest effort, a tense 20-17 victory over the New England Patriots yesterday, put the Redskins (3-1) back atop the NFC East and left them increasingly optimistic about their prospects.
“You know what, it builds a lot of character when you win like this,” safety Ifeanyi Ohalete said after Washington eked out its third victory by three points or less. “I’d love to blow every team out, but that’s not going to happen in this league. We’ve played four games, and we’ve got three victories so far. I’m OK with that.”
Ohalete and his teammates might be singing a far different tune if they hadn’t staved off a furious second-half comeback by the Patriots (2-2), who rallied from 17 points down to nearly tie the game in the waning moments.
But just as they did three weeks ago against the Jets and two weeks ago against the Falcons, the Redskins made just enough plays down the stretch to emerge victorious, sending a raucous FedEx Field crowd of 83,632 home happy.
“We do keep it interesting,” linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said.
For the fourth straight week, Washington went down to the wire, though it probably never should have had to do so this time around. Thanks to an opportunistic defense that forced four New England turnovers and a ball-control offense that avoided making any serious mistakes, the Redskins won despite being outgained 387-252 in total yards and despite Steve Spurrier’s uncharacteristic 29-22 run-to-pass ratio.
“His out-of-character play-calling won the game for us,” said quarterback Patrick Ramsey (10 of 22, 147 yards). “I’m OK with it.”
Kicker John Hall connected on first-half field goals of 38 and 29 yards to send Washington into the locker room up 6-3. Three plays into the third quarter, Champ Bailey forced a fumble by Patriots running back Kevin Faulk — and while Bailey was busy celebrating, teammate Matt Bowen deftly scooped up the ball before it rolled out of bounds and advanced it to the Patriots’ 1.
Moments later, tailback Ladell Betts burst through the line for an easy Washington touchdown. Fullback Rock Cartwright added a 3-yard score later in the quarter (after receiver Rod Gardner recovered Trung Canidate’s fumble on a long run) to put the Redskins ahead by a seemingly comfortable 20-3 margin.
Then, as Trotter would say, things started to get interesting.
The Patriots, who took the field with nine starters out because of injury, drew within 10 points on a 29-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to David Givens. They later marched 68 yards in six plays, capped by Brady’s 7-yard touchdown toss to fullback Larry Centers, making it 20-17 with 2:10 left in the game.
Washington had an opportunity to put the game away right then and there, but the maddening return of a recurring problem — penalties — and a controversial call by the officials turned what was once a sure victory into a nail-biter.
After abandoning the passing game altogether in the second half — Ramsey was a mere two of seven for 12 yards after halftime — Washington found itself in a forced passing situation, third-and-6 from its 22. Within seconds, third-and-6 turned into third-and-16.
Right tackle Chris Samuels, one of several players chastised during last week’s 17-penalty debacle against the Giants, amazingly was flagged twice in a row for false starts. (Samuels was to blame for the first one; the second was pinned on center Larry Moore for not snapping the ball.)
Backed up on their 12, the Redskins needed a clutch play. They appeared to get one when Laveranues Coles made a sprawling catch along the left sideline and then barely reached the first-down marker before the ball came loose out of bounds.
The pass, however, was ruled incomplete, and referee Tom White upheld the decision after a video review. The crowd, not to mention the Washington bench, was irate. But the call was in accordance with NFL rules, which state that a receiver, even after making a catch, must maintain possession of the ball upon hitting the ground.
Coles, who after three straight 100-yard games was held to five receptions for 62 yards, said he had never heard of the rule before.
“I caught the ball, I took three or four steps, I’ve got possession of the ball,” he said. “What else do you need?”
Forced to punt, the Redskins were pushed back another 5 yards on yet another false-start penalty (this time on gunner David Terrell). When Bryan Barker’s wobbling, 38-yard punt was finally downed at the Washington 45, New England had 1:39 to try to tie or win the game.
This time, the Redskins’ defense came through in the clutch.
After an incomplete pass on first down, Centers had a pair of short gains, both stopped by linebacker Jessie Armstead. On fourth-and-3 at the 38, Patriots coach Bill Belichick eschewed a 56-yard field goal attempt and instead went for the first down. Brady’s pass over the middle to tight end Daniel Graham was broken up by Ohalete, and the Redskins finally were allowed to breathe a sigh of relief.
“We’d like to, when we get up on a team, be able to put them away,” Bowen said. “That’s something we have to work on. These guys won a Super Bowl a couple of years ago. Tom Brady, you can’t let that guy have a chance to come back. He almost did today.”