In danger of missing the playoffs, the Washington Redskins used turnovers to turn momentum in their favor.
Capitalizing on four fourth-quarter turnovers by the Philadelphia Eagles, the Redskins clinched their first postseason berth since the 1999 season with a 31-20 victory Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.
Riding a five-game winning streak, the Redskins (10-6) will visit Tampa Bay (11-5) on Saturday in a National Football Conference first-round playoff game.
This was not a dominant performance by the Redskins, but they were opportunistic and aggressive, as they had been throughout their run to the playoffs. The Redskins looked like a mediocre team on Nov. 27, when an overtime loss to San Diego dropped them to 5-6. But Washington has not lost in more than a month, carried by the running of Clinton Portis, the receiving of Santana Moss and a hard-hitting defense that was the catalyst for Sunday's victory.
Making the playoffs was another milestone for Washington's Hall of Fame coach, Joe Gibbs, in the second year of his second tenure with the Redskins. After Washington finished 6-10 last season, some believed the game had passed Gibbs by.
But Gibbs raised his record in December and January to 57-18, and the Redskins played their best football when it mattered most.
"I was starting all over when I first came back, and to be quite truthful, when I finished the season, there were a lot of other first-year coaches who did a lot better job than I did," Gibbs said Sunday, reflecting on last season.
"You've got to understand, up here you're going to take criticism when things don't go well. We worked hard in the off-season. We tried to do smart things, and we added good players who helped us. Our backs have been against the wall for five weeks, and they seemed to respond and play better."
With the Redskins trailing by 20-17 starting the fourth quarter, their defense went to work. The go-ahead touchdown was set up by an interception by linebacker Lemar Marshall that gave Washington a first down at Philadelphia's 22-yard line. Portis (112 yards, 27 carries) scored on the next play, making a 360-degree spin move at the line of scrimmage, breaking to the outside and outrunning Philadelphia's secondary to the end zone.
Asked how that play was designed, Portis said, jokingly, "I think it was designed for a 2-yard loss."
But Portis has been a serious part of Washington's resurgence, rushing for at least 100 yards in the past five games. He set a franchise record with 1,516 yards rushing for the season, but the Redskins were prouder of what they had achieved as a team.
"It was either go out there and find a way to win, or clean out our lockers tomorrow morning," Portis said. "I wasn't ready to clean my locker out, and I don't think any of the other guys were either."
After Portis' score, the Redskins sealed the victory with a defensive touchdown, when defensive end Phillip Daniels knocked the ball away from Eagles quarterback Koy Detmer with two and a half minutes left. The loose ball was scooped up by safety Sean Taylor, who raced 39 yards untouched into the end zone to put the Redskins up by two scores.
At that point, players on Washington's sideline began to celebrate, able to exhale after a victory that had come harder than most expected. All that stood between the Redskins and the playoffs were the Eagles (6-10), a team decimated by injuries, with nothing to play for but pride.