MINNEAPOLIS – The game had been over for 15 minutes, yet Brian Orakpo sat at his locker deep in the bowels of the Metrodome, hunched over, still wearing his full uniform and pads.
For the second consecutive week, the Washington Redskins had squandered a sizable second-half lead, this time losing 34-27 to the hapless Minnesota Vikings. The outside linebacker, sullen, stared at the ground.
“I don’t know,” Orakpo said, pausing for an uncomfortable silence. “To be honest with you, I don’t know.”
Many questions went unanswered on a chilly Thursday night, one which cooled the prospects of the Redskins’ season. The Vikings had won just one of their first eight games, were missing six starters and lost their starting quarterback – at least, one of them – but didn’t seem fazed by any of it.
They scored on two of their first three drives and put up 20 unanswered points after the Redskins took a 27-14 lead with 9:22 remaining in the third quarter. Washington attempted a comeback, marching 76 yards with 2:26 left, but was held after three consecutive pass attempts from the Vikings’ 4-yard line fell incomplete.
Now, the Redskins find themselves in familiar territory. At 3-6, they’ll need to win a significant number of their seven remaining games just to enter the playoff picture. They don’t even seem that close.
“We have to find ways to win games,” said Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III. “We didn’t do it.”
The Redskins haven’t won consecutive games this season, but the tide seemed to be turning in recent weeks. Griffin, who completed 24 of 37 passes for 281 yards and three touchdowns, has improved since springing back into action following offseason surgery on his right knee. The defense, always on the wrong side of a big play early in the year, seemed to make strides.
The problem, simply, comes down to scoring. While the defense has scored five touchdowns on interception returns, it can’t keep expecting the offense to win shootouts. In the five games since the bye week, the Redskins’ opponents have scored an average of 35 points a game. Only one team in the league – the high-octane Denver Broncos, who scored 45 points against Washington on Oct. 27 – has averaged more.
“You have to score more points than the opposition,” Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. “Sometimes it’ll be 10-9, other times it’ll be 35-34, but you have to find a way to win.”
Early on Thursday, that outcome didn’t seem in doubt. The Redskins scored on their first five possessions for the first time since late in the 1985 season, coasting to that 13-point lead.
The problem was that the Vikings were able to sail along as well. Quarterback Christian Ponder completed 17 of 21 passes for 174 yards with two touchdowns and an interception before leaving with a dislocated left shoulder late in the third quarter. Running back Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 75 yards and two touchdowns, stabilized two fourth-quarter drives that resulted in field goals.
That left the Redskins with one final drive in which to tie the score. Griffin, who has made a habit of thriving in tough situations during his brief career, rallied the offense on a 14-play drive that seemed so likely to end in a score that Vikings coach Leslie Frazier began calling timeouts to conserve the clock.
Passes to tight end Jordan Reed and wide receivers Pierre Garçon and Santana Moss fell incomplete, allowing the Vikings one final kneel-down.
“I don’t think we wavered,” said Vikings tight end John Carlson, who caught a team-high seven passes for 98 yards, including a 28-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter. “I think we left the defense out there a little too much in the first half. … We knew we had to play a little better, execute better. That’s the story of our season, but we came out and did it.”
The Redskins won’t have it easy next time out, either. They play a critical division game on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles on Nov. 16. It was the Eagles who first thumped the Redskins’ defense for 33 points in the opener.
Griffin, more polished than he was on Sept. 9, will be better suited to counter that. He just can’t do it alone.
“It’s a tough loss, a tough loss,” nose tackle Barry Cofield said. “Defensively, we expected to play a lot better. We could have played a lot better, and we’ve got to play a lot better going forward the rest of the season.”