LANDOVER, MD-With time slipping away and the Washington Redskins heading to what appeared to be their third straight loss, Donovan McNabb and the offense had to drive 75 yards in 3:47 to come back from a 17-10 deficit to an up-and-coming Tampa Bay Buccaneer squad.
For a moment it seemed as if McNabb had pulled the Redskins' chestnuts out of the fire with a six-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss on fourth and goal. However, when Graham Gano went out for the all-important extra point to tie the score, the same misfortune plaguing the offense struck on special teams.
The snap from Nick Sundberg was high, but holder Hunter Smith failed to save the play as the ball glanced off his hands behind Gano. The botched attempt left the Redskins dazed after another last-second loss in a game that was theirs for the taking.
"Man it just hurts. There ain't a whole lot to say about it," said Moss who was clearly stung by the loss. "When you are going through it year after year, it just builds up man. It hurts. I don't have words for it. I just feel we work too hard to come out here and be mediocre on Sundays."
The touchdown came on the heels of months of frustration in which the offense has struggled to produce in key moments. The score capped a thirteen play effort in a pouring rain against a Buccaneer team in the thick of the NFC play-off picture and could have been a significant step forward for McNabb who has struggled mightily this season. But the missed point after killed any positives found in the final drive.
"It is tough, there is no question," said Smith. "It's raining, the ball is wet when it goes onto the field. It's wet when it's put down. It's wet when Donovan [McNabb] throws a touchdown pass to put us in a situation to tie the game and it's wet when I go out and have to hold the ball in a manner that we can kick the ball and tie the game up. I didn't do that."
Even though Smith ultimately took the blame for the loss, there was plenty to go around.
The Buccaneers trailed for much of the game until Josh Freeman threw a 41-yard, go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter to tight end Kellen Winslow. Winslow got behind the defense and caught the ball over an outstretched Rocky McIntosh for an easy touchdown. Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo appeared to be held badly on the play by left tackle Donald Penn, but no flags were thrown and Winslow's catch stood. Freeman ran in the two-point conversion giving Tampa Bay the 17-10 edge.
"He had a great sleeper hold on me," said Orakpo of Penn. "You now I've been having that all year man. I don't know what I have to do to keep getting these calls, but they missed that one. That was a huge play. If he didn't hold me, obviously the quarterback is on the ground. He knows it too. It's frustrating when you have a situation like that; you're trying to make a big play for your team and you get strangled like that."
His numbers weren't outstanding, but Freeman didn't turn the ball over and his strike to Winslow, plus the subsequent scramble for two points, proved to be the difference.
"It was really about finding a way to win today, really," said Tampa cornerback Ronde Barber. "All that matters is that we came out with a win and need to continue to move forward. We only have one game left on the road, but really it was just about finding a way to win today."
While the Buccaneers took the victory, it was Washington who dominated the first half without it showing up on the scoreboard.
Ryan Torain rushed for 172 yards on 24 carries in his return from a hamstring injury that sidelined him throughout November. The young running back filling in for Clinton Portis posted his third 100 yard performance in just his fifth start with the team. This one was especially impressive as he consistently found himself in the Tampa Bay secondary.
"It's good to see Ryan back and healthy and being able to run through some tackles and pick up some yards for us," McNabb told reporters. "He had an excellent game. In the first half, he was outstanding."
There was little question the first half belonged to him as he dominated the first quarter headlines with 10 carries for 121 yards, including a 54-yarder on his first carry to set the tone. That was the most 1st quarter yardage by a running back since Marshall Faulk in 2001 and Torain's 158 first half yards were the most in a half since Tiki Barber dashed for 171 yards in 2005, ironically against the Redskins.
"The offensive line was working so well," Torain said. "They were opening up big holes and we were stretching them and cutting back. And that's what we do. That's our bread and butter."
Washington ran the ball 22 times for 174 yards in the first half, punishing a Buccaneer front, which lost rookie defensive tackle and first round pick Gerald McCoy early in the first quarter to a biceps injury. However, blown opportunities cost Washington a chance to build a big lead.
Gano missed field goals from 34 and 22 yards and a goal line fiasco to end the first half meant he had to trot out for another kick, which he converted from 25 yards out. The Redskins mismanaged the clock following a timeout, forcing them to rush a third down play. It was unsuccessful and led to the field goal, making it 10-3 at halftime.
"Obviously, you want to win a football game like that," said Mike Shanahan. "You can take control of it, you got some long drives in the first half and you settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown. You have opportunities, even at the end of the half, and we had the ball on the two-yard line and we can't get it in the end zone....You can't make mistakes like that and still win."
Washington did hit pay dirt on fourth and goal from the one as McNabb found rookie tight end Logan Paulsen in the end zone to put the Redskins up 7-0 in the second quarter. It was Paulsen's first NFL touchdown and a crucial one given the prior two trips to the red zone had ended in missed field goals.
"They were in their goal line defensive package," said Paulsen in the locker room after the game. "Usually you have a defensive linemen covering a tight end and that's what they did. We had been preparing for that all week and it worked to perfection."
The rest of the day, however, didn't go according to plan. The Buccaneers squibbed the second half kick-off to keep the ball away from the explosive Brandon Banks, and linebacker Chris Wilson muffed the ball, turning it over to Tampa.
The Bucs chipped away at the lead with a pair of field goals from Connor Barth as Torain was held to one yard in the third quarter. The Redskins offense disappeared along with him, holding the ball for a paltry 3:47. They also failed to pick up a first down as Tampa made the necessary adjustments to stop the run.
McNabb's late-game heroics were part of one of his better outings in 2010. He went 22-35 for 228 yards and two touchdown passes. Notably, he avoided throwing an interception for the first time in 10 games and finished with a quarterback rating over 100 for just the second time this year.
"I've been a part of up and down seasons, but nothing to this point," he said echoing Moss' sentiments. "When you get in this situation, I think it's important, as a team, to continue to stay together and make sure that everyone understands that if you're not fighting for anything then fight for yourself and be a spoiler."
Washington falls to 5-8 with the loss, needing to win out to reach .500 on the year. They travel to Dallas next week to renew their rivalry with the Cowboys in an attempt to sweep the season series between the two.