LANDOVER, Md. – The Giants had no business even being close to the Redskins midway through the final period. But they were. And once again, the vaunted Giants defense, playing without LB Jessie Armstead for the final two-and-a-half periods, failed to make a stop.
This time, trailing by six points, the defense needed to stop the Redskins on a third-and-19. No deal. Redskins WR Michael Westbrook got CB Jason Sehorn off-balance en route to a 76-yard touchdown that sealed Washington's well-deserved 35-21 victory and knocked the Giants below .500 with a 3-4 record.
With the win, the Redskins moved within a game of New York, which failed to take advantage of Philadelphia's one-sided loss to Oakland. The 3-3 Eagles still lead the NFC East by a half-game.
"Bad guess, bad play," Sehorn said. "I was thinking something and I was wrong. The last five third down plays, they were running plays to the sticks." This time they didn't, and the Giants paid dearly in front of 80,316 at FedExField. But Sehorn was hardly the only one to blame on this afternoon. "We're all a team here," said LB Dhani Jones, who hardly impressed while filling in for Armstead. "None of us played well enough. We lost."
And they deserved to. Sure, the Giants were playing without their defensive leader, Armstead, but on this dreadful afternoon, that was hardly enough of an excuse. More than once the Giants allowed Redskins QB Tony Banks to slip out of third-and-long situations. Dismal play on special teams, and not enough production on offense also led to New York's downfall.
"We can't play football the way we are playing right now and expect to win," Head Coach Jim Fassel said. "I don't think that you can say that the whole team is playing poorly. I think this is the second game this year that our defense probably gave up too much."
The Giants defense gave up 353 yards, while the special teams allowed recently-signed Eric Metcalf to return a punt 89 yards for a TD, Washington's second in the game's first nine minutes. "You have to put the blame on everybody," RDE Kenny Holmes said. "All three phases of the game were bad. But it would have been a different game if it didn't start out 14-0." Despite putting up 388 total yards, the offense didn't do nearly enough to win the game.
QB Kerry Collins posted career highs in both completions (32) and attempts (52) while throwing for 346 yards. "I think he did all right," Fassel said. "I saw some improvement." According to Collins, it wasn't nearly enough. "There are no excuses this week," he said. "We just came out and got our butts handed to us. I'm responsible."
LDE Michael Strahan, who added two more sacks to his storybook season, saw it differently. "Our offense gave us enough to win," he said. But since they fell into the two-TD hole, the offense was forced to the air more than they'd like. Big Blue rushed for only 42 yards, averaging a mere 2.2 yards per carry. By contrast, the passing game worked, as Amani Toomer caught nine passes for 109 yards, and RB Tiki Barber (9-74) and WR Joe Jurevicius (6-77) also contributed to the cause.
So much for back to the basics. On the Giants' second offensive play, after Collins missed an open Toomer on first down, New York called for an end around to the wideout. Collins' attempt to hand the ball to Toomer, who was running right to left, failed, and Redskins DE Kenard Lang fell on the loose ball at the New York 17-yard line.
"I don't think that Amani gave [Collins] a real good pocket on that one," Fassel said. "I think it hit his elbow," Collins added. Three plays after the fumble, Banks hit rookie WR Rod Gardner for a 12-yard TD. Gardner ran a quick in route in front of rookie CB Will Peterson, and Banks delivered a perfect pass. Peterson was again starting for Will Allen, out with a sprained ankle suffered in St. Louis.
The ‘Skins doubled their early lead, scoring on the 89-yard punt return by Metcalf. While the Giants struggled earlier in the season with their return game, the prevailing thought around the organization was that you couldn't get a good return guy off the street. Well, that's exactly what Washington did, signing Metcalf off the scrapheap only four days before he hurt the Giants. P Rodney Williams' boot was a poor one, as he hit a line drive that didn't make it out of bounds. Metcalf fielded it on his own 11, avoided two Giants with a nice move, then eluded another diving tackle attempt. He headed to his right and into the open. Williams did a good job of getting to the sideline and forcing Metcalf back inside, but no one could catch up to him. Dave Thomas had the last shot at him, but couldn't get there.
"We didn't tackle the guy," Fassel said. "We missed like seven tackles on that. Everyone had a shot at him." The following second-quarter sequence served as a microcosm of the game from the Giants' perspective. First, Toomer made a beautiful diving grab for an 18-yard gain. On the very next play, the Giants again tried to get cute – and again failed miserably. RB Ron Dayne took a handoff from Collins and headed right. He stopped and pitched the ball back to Collins on a flea flicker attempt. However, Dayne's toss went behind Collins, who fell on the free ball and was sacked for a 17-yard loss by Redskins DE Bruce Smith. WR Ike Hilliard was wide open on the play. The Giants were forced to punt again, and Williams was only able to get off an 18-yard boot.
"We had a guy wide open, but the pitch was behind the quarterback," Fassel said. However, the Giants were soon able to slice the lead in half, thanks to a six-yard TD catch by Toomer. Jurevicius, still holding off Hilliard for the second starting receiver spot, posted an 18-yard catch. He then drew a pass interference call on Redskins DB Central McClellion, a 22-yard infraction that moved the ball to the Washington nine. Two plays later, Toomer beat Redskins CB Champ Bailey on a fade route for the points. That was only the second offensive touchdown for the Giants in the previous 10 quarters. The defense then stepped up. After a penalty on the kickoff return backed the ‘Skins up to their own nine-yard line, Armstead dogged up the middle to drop Redskins RB Stephen Davis for a loss of four. On the next play, Strahan did a good job of sniffing out a screen pass to Davis, and almost dropped him for a safety.
The bad news? Armstead sprained his left knee on the play. He came back in on New York's next defensive series, but only lasted one play before returning to the sideline. With the defense giving the offense such good field position, Hilliard did the rest. He caught a short pass from a scrambling Collins, stepped around Redskins CB Champ Bailey, then bounced off a weak tackle attempt by Redskins LB LaVar Arrington and dove into the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown and a 14-14 tie with three minutes to play in the half.
A pair of former Penn Staters hurt the Giants right before halftime. Redskins RB Ki-Jana Carter busted off a 30-yard run, during which both Giants safeties – Shaun Williams and Sam Garnes – missed tackle attempts. Then, as the first half clock expired, Brett Conway drilled a 43-yard field goal to give the ‘Skins a 17-14 halftime edge. It didn't take them long to extend their lead over the stunned Giants.
K Morten Andersen gave the ‘Skins great field position when his kickoff went out of bounds. Starting from their own 40, Washington got a 15-yard run by Davis, a 17-yard catch-and-run by TE Zeron Flemister, who was wide open in the right flat, and a 31-yard TD connection between WRs Kevin Lockett and Derrius Thompson. Lockett caught a pass from Banks behind the line of scrimmage and found Thompson in the end zone for a 24-14 Washington lead.
"That was a blown coverage on the double pass," Fassel understated. Despite that there was almost two full quarters remaining in the game, the contest was essentially decided at that point. The Giants failed on fourth-and-five from the Redskins 35 when Bailey knocked away Collins' pass to Toomer. The Redskins responded with a 20-yard Conway field goal with 3:23 to play in the third. The Giants answered by marching 72 yards in 12 plays, scoring on a one-yard catch by FB Greg Comella. But that would be as close as New York would get. Following the game, Fassel was still steaming over his club's third consecutive loss.
"I'm going to change everything I can change," he said. "That's not a threat, that's a promise. I'll get their attention somehow." He better do it soon.