For a change, the Redskins entered with simmering playoff hopes. And they left with those hopes very much alive, thanks to a 20-10 victory over the host Cardinals. Washington is 6-6, a game behind Tampa Bay and New Orleans for the final Wild Card spot. Atlanta also is 6-6.
''Every game is a big game from here on out,'' Redskins end Marco Coleman. No kidding. Another loss would severly hamper Washington's chances of reaching the postseason. But four more wins, starting Sunday against Philadelphia, could leave the Redskins with an NFC East title.
''It's been a long road, but we can do this,'' Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington said. ''The Redskins are playing with an attitude.'' Which stems, in part from an 0-5 start as well as last week's loss to Dallas, a source of motivation. ''We were madder than a rhino with a hernia,'' said Arrington, who finished with nine tackles and an interception. ''We had a lot that we needed to get off our chest and it showed.''
The Redskins used a simple formula to win, one that carried them during their five-game winning streak. They ran Stephen Davis (26 carries, 110 yards) and hit big plays at the right time. ''We let Stephen Davis control the game,'' Arizona coach Dave McGinnis said. ''We were coming after him, but you've got to make it work and we didn't.''
Quarterback Tony Banks completed 19 of 26 passes for 210 yards and a touchdown, helping Washington to a strong offensive balance. This after missing Friday's practice with the flu. ''Thursday night was one of the worst nights of my life,'' he said. ''I'm a little dehydrated.''
But also a little excited, thanks to the big plays, starting with a 40-yard grab at the 2-yard line by receiver Rod Gardner. The rookie outleapt corner Corey Chavous, setting up a one-yard Davis run in the fourth quarter for a 20-3 lead. '
'I have been waiting for Rod to do that,'' Redskins quarterback Tony Banks said. ''I've been watching all the highlights at our stadium of him at Clemson jumping all over everybody, so I've been waiting for him to make plays like that for me.'' There was more, especially early in the game. Receiver Michael Westbrook had his second big game of the season, catching seven passes for 82 yards as Washington took advantage of rookie corner Renaldo Hill time and time again. Hill was subbing for injured corner Tom Knight, who left early in the game with a hamstring injury. Westbrook caught six passes for 76 yards in the first half.
''The last thing I said to [offensive coordinator] Jimmy Raye before we left the locker room was to attack,'' Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer said. ''[But] attack by our standards is not like St. Louis. Me, I'd like to throw it around, but that's not us. This kind of football gives us a chance to win almost every week.'' Yet they attacked more than they have in recent weeks, mainly because they faced the 31st-ranked pass defense.
Westbrook's 21-yard grab set up Washington's first touchdown, a two-yard toss to tight end Zeron Flemister on the first play of the second quarter for a 7-0 lead. Flemister got open thanks to his ability to sell his block on a play-action fake. Flemister blocked for a couple seconds on a linebacker. Then, when the linebacker stared too long in the backfield, looking for the ball, Flemister broke to the end zone and caught a wide-open pass.
But the Redskins blew too many chances in the first half until Arrington bailed them out. Again. This time he intercepted a pass late in the first half, returning it 41 yards to the Cardinals' 9 with nine seconds left. Arrington's defensive teammates did their part, too. They controlled an attack that had scored 99 points the past three games, including 34 in a win at Oakland last week.
Washington didn't do anything fancy, though it played more zone coverage than in the past, hoping to prevent big plays. It worked. Arizona didn't score a touchdown until 1:42 remained in the game. Of the Cardinals' 326 yards, 129 came in their final two drives--after they trailed by 17 points. One of those series ended at the Washington 1 when, on fourth and goal, Arrington and fellow linebacker Kevin Mitchell stopped Michael Pittman for a two-yard loss.
''We were a lot more in tune with our responsibilities,'' Redskins end Marco Coleman said. ''We just played good team defense.'' The Redskins' lead could have been greater. They penetrated the Arizona's side of the field on five different series in the first half, yet scored only 10 points. Washington reached the Arizona 22-yard line on its first series. But, on fourth and 1, Davis' three-yard run was nullified by Flemister's holding penalty. Then Conway missed a 47-yard kick, hitting the left upright. One series after Flemister's touchdown, the Redskins started at midfield. But they managed only two yards before punting. They started another possession at the Arizona 35, but that, too, ended in disaster as Conway missed a 44-yarder wide left. Penalties didn't help. On an earlier drive, which started at Washington's 40, tackle Chris Samuels' holding penalty wiped out a 17-yard Davis run.
''We met the enemy today and they were us,'' Schottenheimer said. ''I don't know what to say about the penalties, but it's a real tribute to the players that we came out of this thing with 13 penalties and still won the game.''