LANDOVER, Md. – If you could have been there in the first quarter Saturday, standing shoulder to shoulder with Santana Moss, then maybe you could have seen a nice little summary of what these Washington Redskins have done in the last month.
Lined up across from New York Giants cornerback Will Allen with just over two minutes left in the quarter, Moss watched free safety Brent Alexander begin to cheat away from his side of the field. He looked at Allen and saw one thing – single coverage.
"I was like, 'Oh man, this is like stealing from a baby,' " Moss said. "When I saw it happen, my eyes got big."
Freeze that moment and you have the essence of the last four weeks for the Redskins. Snake back through the beginning of December and you'll find a common thread: Each week this month brought a win, and each was pulled together by the same kind of moments Moss encountered Saturday night – the stuff made of big eyes and big opportunities.
So maybe it was no surprise to see what Moss did to Allen on that first-quarter play – streaking downfield, getting Allen to bite on a head fake and then slamming on the brakes as Allen flew by. Then, in one complete motion as Allen's momentum carried him away from the play, Moss adjusted to a Mark Brunell bomb, turning over his opposite shoulder and catching what would become a 59-yard touchdown and a 14-10 lead. It would be the second of three dazzling Moss touchdowns in a pivotal 35-20 win for the Redskins, who now find themselves in solid playoff position and with an outside shot at the NFC East title.
"I've got to tell you, if there's anybody with better long-ball reaction than that guy. … He turned around and snatched that thing from I don't know where," Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said of Moss. "His long-ball reaction is just phenomenal."
The victory included a slight thundercloud, with the loss of Brunell early in the second half to a sprained MCL. He's expected to be evaluated again later in the week – a reality that cast a slight damper on Washington's big victory.
Even with Brunell's injury, it was hard not to be impressed by Moss and a Redskins team that had been pounded by the Giants 36-0 at the Meadowlands on Oct. 30. That earlier loss to New York broke a string of three consecutive 100-yard games by Moss and began a significant cooling-off period for what had been one of the NFL's hottest wideouts heading into late October.
The Giants held Moss to 34 yards in that defeat, which Gibbs billed as "the first time I felt like in two years that we kind of got manhandled by somebody."
The Redskins lost defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin to injury in that game, and the team really never seemed the same in the month of November. Nor did Moss, who went into Saturday with a string of eight games without a 100-yard receiving performance – a span in which he also caught only one touchdown pass. That played a large part in Washington's stumble to a 5-6 record by the end of November, a slide that would leave the Redskins gasping for their playoff lives.
But something began to change for Washington during that slide. While Moss and the team's playoff hopes began to flicker, the Redskins began to shift more of the offensive load to running back Clinton Portis. He had a season-high 29 carries in a narrow loss to San Diego on Nov. 27, followed by arguably his best game of the season – a 136-yard, two-touchdown effort in a 24-9 win over St. Louis.
Quietly, the man who was better known for his time in Denver's backfield started carving out Pro Bowl numbers again – 76 carries for 353 yards and a trio of touchdowns in Washington's three December wins leading into Saturday night. That offensive balance complicated matters for the Giants, who, in their October win, forced the Redskins into passing mode and never had to account for Portis.
"The key," Moss said, "has been Clinton having the games he's been having week after week. You've got to respect the run. When they give up that single coverage – give up that coverage where I've got one guy on me – we call the (deep) plays at the right time."
"You pick your poison," Portis said. "You either give up the deep ball to Santana and let Santana and (H-back) Chris Cooley kill you, or you can let me grind it out for 10, 15 yards."
The Giants never quite figured that out Saturday, giving up a combined 278 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns to Moss and Portis. Washington's offensive versatility was punctuated in the second quarter when Gibbs ran a toss sweep to Portis with a run or pass option. Portis chose the pass, hitting Cooley with a perfect 17-yard touchdown spiral for a 21-10 lead.
"It's confidence, swagger – the coaches believe in it," said Portis, expounding on an offense that has put up 35 points in back-to-back games against the Giants and Dallas Cowboys. "Coach Gibbs, early in the season, would have never called that halfback pass that early, in that crucial situation. Coach Gibbs has been relaxed and trusted us."
That trust has translated into a power shift, where the Giants continue to look as shaky as every other NFC power not located in Seattle. Surely, New York has to question its composure. The Giants still had opportunities to stay in the game late, but continually hurt themselves with miscues. Among the most alarming, wide receiver Plaxico Burress dropped a touchdown on the first play of the game, then had another pivotal pass bounce off his fingers and into the arms of Amani Toomer for a lucky touchdown late in the first half.
But the problems weren't limited to Burress. Kicker Jay Feeley had a field-goal attempt blocked, and tight end Jeremy Shockey stopped to complain about pass interference in the second quarter – at the same time Redskins linebacker Lemar Marshall was intercepting an Eli Manning pass and returning it for prime field position. But neither of those mistakes was as costly as a fourth-quarter holding penalty by guard Chris Snee, whose miscue nullified a 36-yard touchdown catch by Toomer – which would have pulled the Giants to within 35-27 with 6:25 left.
"This game was about momentum," Giants running back Tiki Barber lamented. "Washington has the momentum and a deep-seated desire. They have a purpose. It showed in how they played today."
Surely, it's a momentum that has been building for the Redskins all month long. Written off as regular-season fodder at the end of November, Washington has remade its image into one that looks like yet another dangerous NFC playoff team. And in a conference that seems to have only one clearly elite team in the Seahawks, there's no telling what the Redskins can pull off from this point on.
"Guys are motivated," Gibbs said. "They are excited."
Considering how far this team has come in a month, it's not hard to see why.