At the end of Week 9 of the 2012 season, the Washington Redskins had a 3-6 record, and head coach Mike Shanahan was talking about evaluating his players for the following year. Washington then ripped off seven straight wins on their way to an unlikely NFC East title. If the 3-6 Redskins are to match that feat in 2013, they may need even more magic beans, because Mike Shanahan's team showed a serious roster of flaws in their 34-27 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
When Washington was on in the first half, they dominated the Vikings with play-action and screens from Robert Griffin III and the power running of Alfred Morris, who rushed for 139 yards on 26 carries in the game. The Redskins kept the ball for over 36 minutes, but in the end, their offensive line fell apart, and their defensive line fell victim to Adrian Peterson over and over. Minnesota scored 20 unanswered points to pull the game out. Griffin drove his team from the Washington 20-yard line to the Minnesota 4-yard line in the final 3:36 of the game, but fell short when Santana Moss caught a ball just out of bounds on fourth-and-goal with 32 seconds remaining.
"We've said that we play hard all the time; we just don't execute consistently," said Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who tallied 2.5 sacks and four QB hits on the night. "In the second half, we were able to get some pressure with the rush, the DBs did a great job, and we were able to hold them to just three in the second half."
The Vikings were able to do so despite a shoulder injury to starting quarterback Christian Ponder, who had perhaps his best game as a pro, completing 17 of 21 passes for 174 yards, two touchdowns, and an early interception. Backup Matt Cassel came in and wisely kept handing the ball to Peterson, who put up just 75 yards on 20 carries, but scored two touchdowns. And backup tight end John Carlson, subbing in for the injured Kyle Rudolph, set career highs with seven catches for 98 yards.
"He looked more calm, he looked comfortable," Peterson said of Ponder, who mentioned after the game that he hoped to return next week. "He just went out there and played football. The way he came out and approached it allowed us to be balanced offensively, he was able to complete a lot of balls to a lot of different receivers and it kept Washington’s defense on their heels. He was able to sneak a run in there and be more balanced offensively, and shoot, we were able to move the ball."
Things didn't start pretty for Minnesota, though. At the end of the Vikings' first, Ponder threw a deep ball in the general direction of receiver Greg Jennings and at least three Washington Redskins defenders. The deep ball was underthrown -- as most Ponder deep balls are -- and it floated nicely into the hands of Washington Redskins safety Brandon Meriweather, who returned the interception 30 yards to the Washington 49-yard line. The Redskins couldn't respond with a touchdown on the subsequent drive, even with a pass interference call on cornerback Xavier Rhodes that put the ball on the Minnesota 1-yard line.
But on Washington's second drive, Griffin started to pick apart the Vikings' defense, aided as he was by some truly horrible first-half tackling. Griffin finished the first half with 16 of 21 passes completed for 179 yards and three touchdowns.
Ponder kept the Vikings in the game by using his own version of play-action, and the Redskins' linebackers responded by biting over and over on run fakes. It was a testament to Minnesota's offense that they were still in the game at the half, despite having the ball for just nine minutes and 40 seconds.
Williams said that the defensive coaches were "fussing" at their players during the half. Whatever they said seemed to work, and Minnesota started to alternate effective blitzes with more press coverage to alter Griffin's reads and give him less time to process what he was seeing. Griffin was relatively untouched in the first half, but Williams and his teammates got to him for four sacks in the final 30 minutes. Griffin got balky and started to throw airballs. Washington's abysmal special teams added their own special blend of comedy and tragedy when Sav Rocca tried a fake punt with 3:08 left in the third quarter. Tight end Niles Paul didn't even have his head turned for the throw, and a false start gave the Redskins another fourth down.
Ponder hurt his shoulder on the next drive when he was running for a touchdown down the left sideline. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall stopped him just short of the left pylon, and after he was looked at by trainers, Ponder left the field. Cassel completed just 4 of 6 passes for 47 yards on the night, but in feeding the ball to Peterson over and over in the fourth quarter, he served his purpose. The Vikings flipped the script on the Redskins, possessing the ball just long enough to force Washington's offense into panic mode.
Washington will unquestionably look back on this loss with abject frustration. They outgained the Vikings, 433-307, but were far less efficient in the red zone, especially when it counted. And atypically, it was Ponder who avoided pressure with his feet, while Griffin was too often caught up in the rush to be effective.
"We have to find ways to win games," Griffin said. "We didn’t do it. We won the yardage and turnover battle, threw the ball well, receivers and everyone blocked well, but we had a couple of drives in the third quarter that didn’t go our way. We can’t have those drives and we also can’t let that swing the momentum for the rest of the game. We felt like we were in control and you walk off the field with a loss. It’s very disheartening, but I don’t think anyone on this team is going to quit."
For the 2-7 Vikings, this game meant little more than their first win of the season on American soil, having beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers by this same score in London on Sept. 29. For the Redskins, this game will serve as a tough reminder of what could have been, and a wakeup call indicating that last year's miracles may be in short supply.