TAMPA, Fla. – At one point after Saturday's 17-10 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington walked toward the showers with eyes like silver dollar pancakes. Along the way he mumbled – apparently to himself – "Is this real?"
His offense had just put up the fewest yards in NFL history by a winning playoff team – 120, including only 25 passing – and yet, the Redskins walked out of Raymond James Stadium with a victory. It's a win that was balanced on the shoulders of the same Redskins' defense that hadn't gotten the media acclaim of the Chicago Bears' unit or the statistical title of No. 1 defense given to Tampa Bay.
It was also driven by a star outside linebacker whose biggest accomplishment until Saturday was escaping the doghouse of head coach Joe Gibbs and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
"It feels like, I don't know – I really don't know what it feels like," Arrington said. "It feels good, but it just doesn't seem like this is happening. Maybe that's what it feels like – like it's not really happening. Maybe I'm going to wake up and this was a horrible dream and then we have to play the real game. This is pretty cool. If this is really real, then it's cool."
As descriptions go, it wasn't exactly Robert Frost. But Arrington didn't need it to be. Not after recording arguably his best game of the season – 10 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and a pass defensed. Washington needed that kind of a performance with the record-setting futility from its banged-up offense.
Tampa Bay's No. 1 defense was every bit as dominating as advertised, but Clinton Portis never looked quite right, having to leave the game on a handful of occasions to get his sore shoulders treated. Quarterback Mark Brunell wasn't much better, either, completing only 7 of 15 passes for 41 yards and an interception.
That left Washington's defense to save the day. An impressive four-man rush allowed the Redskins to get pressure on Chris Simms without taking too many gambles with blitzes, as two of Washington's three sacks came from defensive linemen.
"That was part of the plan," said Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who made news this week by signing the most lucrative contract for an assistant coach in the history of professional sports. "Because we were healthier up front, we really felt that we could have a presence in the rush only rushing four. It was totally because of the matchups and because of our health. We were in a shambles the last time we came down here – in our defensive front and even in the secondary."
Washington's offense had to rely on the defense to produce both of the team's touchdowns. On the first TD, Arrington intercepted a deflected pass by Simms and returned the ball 21 yards to Tampa Bay's six-yard line. Portis ran for a touchdown on the next play, and the Redskins had already met one of their big goals for the game: force Simms into a turnover.
Despite Simms' improved play down the stretch, his errors had been harbingers of doom. Before Saturday, the Buccaneers had gone 2-4 in games where Simms committed at least one turnover, but he had a relatively impressive day against Washington. He rushed for one touchdown and threw a perfect, game-tying touchdown pass to Edell Shepherd in the fourth quarter, only to have the catch ruled incomplete after reviews showed Shepherd didn't control the ball before losing it once he hit ground.
Ultimately, a pivotal fumble buried Tampa Bay. Redskins linebacker Marcus Washington stripped Carnell Williams on Tampa's next drive, and in the ensuing chaos, Washington picked up the ball, had it stripped from behind and then watched safety Sean Taylor scoop up the loose ball and run 51 yards for a score and eventual 14-0 lead.
"I tried to get pretty and get my Walter Payton on," Washington said later, swinging his arms out in the locker room. "But Sean Taylor, he's always around, lurking, ready to make a play like that."
Unfortunately for the Redskins, Taylor's moment of sunshine was eventually wiped out when an official saw him spit in the face of Buccaneers running back Michael Pittman in the third quarter. Taylor was ejected and will likely face a fine of one game check if the league stays true to its last punishment for spitting in 2000, when Oakland Raiders defensive end Regan Upshaw spit in the face of then-Pittsburgh Steelers punter Josh Miller.
"If he did what they say he did, then we can understand someone being taken out of the game," Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said. "They should be."
Pittman said afterward that Taylor had indeed spit in his face, but Taylor denied the incident in a conversation with Gregg Williams.
"He said he did not spit on him," Williams said of Taylor. "That's what he told me, and I believe him. I love the kid. The kid has got a great heart behind the scenes and he's a tremendous competitor. There's no other free safety in the NFL I would rather coach than him."
Along with the offensive struggles and a broken forearm suffered by defensive end Renaldo Wynn, a bit of the luster was taken out of the victory, which propelled the Redskins to a second-round matchup against a Seattle Seahawks team it defeated 20-17 in Week 4. What can't be erased is the fact that Washington has now strung together six straight wins and posted one of the most impressive defensive triumphs in postseason history.
As Brunell said later, if he had known he would only pass for 25 yards on Saturday, "I would have told you that our season was over."
Instead, Washington marches on – with the validation that no team in the NFL has ever done so little offensively in the postseason and still advanced in the playoffs.
"I never thought about it that way," said defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, breaking into a grin after being told Washington had broken the NFL record for fewest yards by a winning playoff team.
The last team to hold the record? An upstart Baltimore Ravens squad in 2001 – the same Ravens team that rode its defense all the way to a Super Bowl ring.