NEW ORLEANS -- The Washington Redskins lost their top running back and maybe their season. They turned what should have been a feel-good day, one where they could celebrate their quarterback's aggressiveness and their best win, into a loss that will haunt them for a long time.
The Redskins held a 15-point advantage over the New Orleans Saints late in the fourth quarter. Write the story: Aggressive QB! Big-time road win! Instead, it could turn out to be a big part of the Redskins' season obituary.
"Out of all the losses we've had since I've been here, this is by far the toughest one," said Redskins tight end Vernon Davis, in his second year with Washington. "To play so hard and not come out with a victory is brutal. It's devastating."
They're not done, of course. There are six games remaining. But after losing 34-31 in overtime in the Big Easy -- which also could be the nickname of the Saints' last two scoring drives in regulation -- the Redskins' playoff hopes are on life support. They're 4-6 in a conference where it could take 10 wins to make the postseason.
Making matters worse, the Redskins lost star running back Chris Thompson to a third quarter to a broken right leg; he had to be fitted for an air cast before being carted off. Losing their most dynamic offensive player won't help.
Even after Thompson left, the Redskins were in good position. They were aggressive and moving the ball at will. They scored two touchdowns after Thompson left, with quarterback Kirk Cousins leading the way. He finished the game 22-of-32 for 322 yards and three touchdowns.
He should have ended the game accepting pats on the back: 31 points is enough to win any game. Or should be.
It wasn't. The defense couldn't stop New Orleans. Still, even after a two-point conversion tied the game, the Redskins drove to New Orleans' 34-yard line where an intentional grounding not only cost Washington 10 yards but also precious time as 10 seconds were run off the clock.
The Saints were in a defense that was the antidote to the run play Washington had called. The Redskins wanted more yardage to set up a better field goal attempt.
The coaches yelled for Cousins to throw the ball. It turned into a big bungled affair: Redskins coach Jay Gruden said he was giving a hand signal for a bubble screen to Jamison Crowder. Cousins said he thought the coaches just wanted to throw it near Crowder, setting up another play without wasting their last time out. But with Crowder still thinking run, he went to block – and Cousins threw the ball.
"I don't know why it was a penalty, but it was," Gruden said.
In overtime, Cousins and the offense moved backward and the defense faltered when it took the field. The defense had done well for much of the game, with the exception of a costly penalty (linebacker Preston Smith's roughing penalty that extended a touchdown drive) early in the game.
"All the rest of the situations, we were prepared," Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger said. "But two minute? We didn't prepare. We've just got to execute and get it right and execute two-minute drives. That's been killing us all year. If it ain't broke don't fix it; if it's broke, fix it. Period. Period."
There will be plenty of blame to go around in this one. But the offense played well for nearly the entire game. It ran the ball well with rookie Samaje Perine (23 carries, 117 yards) and featured Cousins attacking down the field. Gruden was aggressive, going for it on a fourth-and-6 -- and converting. And a fake field goal deep in their own territory worked as well.
The Redskins' defense, handed a 15-point lead with six minutes, three seconds left, couldn't close it out.
"After the first score I feel like the energy went out," Swearinger said. "They took control of the game and control of the momentum. We had the ball in our hands and we could have ended it. … Fans were leaving the game, man. Anytime fans are leaving you've got to win the game. I don't care what happened. You've got to find a way to win. Period."
But all of that good only set up a crushing loss. The Redskins have proved to be resilient under Gruden. They've been a banged-up team all season, but this time it's the mental wounds that will be toughest to heal.