LANDOVER -- The Washington Redskins won on the arm of quarterback Brad Johnson and the leg of kicker Brett Conway. But in the end, their fate truly rested on the eyes of Ron Winter.
The referee overturned the ruling that Redskins punt returner Brian Mitchell had fumbled with 4: 19 left in the game, providing Washington with a second chance at victory.
Trailing by a point, Johnson engineered a 69-yard drive, capped by Conway's game-winning, 31-yard field goal with six seconds remaining to lift the Redskins to a 38-36 victory over the Carolina Panthers yesterday.
The 76,831 at Redskins Stadium held their breath, though, when Mitchell had the ball punched out from him by Brian Kinchen at the Redskins' 20-yard line. But Washington challenged the call, and Winter reversed the decision after seeing Mitchell had his left knee down before the fumble when Carolina's Anthony Johnson made the initial hit.
It rounded out a rally-filled day for the the Redskins (3-1), who rebounded from a 21-0 first-quarter deficit to match the biggest comeback in franchise history. The Redskins, who recovered from the same deficit against Detroit in 1990, will have plenty of time to recuperate with the bye week before playing at Arizona on Oct. 17.
"I knew my knee was clearly down," said Mitchell, who walked over to the sideline and angrily threw his helmet to the ground before the challenge. "It shows you that instant replay was needed in the game. Referees are human beings and they make mistakes, too.
"I'm glad they had it [replay]. I didn't want to be the one to do something that makes us lose the game."
Instead of putting the Panthers into field-goal position, the Redskins received a final opportunity to rally from 36-35 with 4: 19 left.
Johnson moved the Redskins 69 yards in 3: 15 by hitting five of seven passes, distributing the ball to Michael Westbrook, Irving Fryar and Larry Centers. Johnson's 19-yard pass to Westbrook, who shook off defender Michael Swift near the left sideline, put the Redskins on the Panthers' 13.
The Redskins handed the ball off to Mitchell twice to wind down the clock and set up Conway's winning kick.
"We practiced our two-minute drive all year long," said Johnson, who completed 20 of 33 passes for 337 yards and four touchdowns. "It is something that is going to come forth sometimes during the season. Fortunately for us, we came through when we needed to."
Carolina (1-3) put the Redskins in a 21-0 first-quarter hole before Washington had moved past its 34-yard line. The lack of pursuit by the Redskins again surfaced as Tshimanga Biakabutuka beat tacklers wide, rushing for 123 yards and touchdown scores of 60, 1 and 45 yards in the first quarter alone.
On his third score of the period, Biakabutuka (142 yards on the day) sprinted 45 yards without being touched, only having to fake out safety Leomont Evans at the 25 to stake the Panthers to a 21-0 advantage with 6: 01 left.
"We were sitting on the sideline when it was 21-0 and [cornerback] Darrell Green came over to Albert [Connell] and I, and asked: 'Is this too much for you guys? What do you have for me?,' " Westbrook said.
That's when the NFL's top-ranked offense revved up its game.
Displaying no panic, the Redskins drove 78 yards in 14 plays, capping the 7 1/2-minute drive with a Stephen Davis 1-yard dive. After John Kasay's 43-yard field goal expanded Carolina's margin to 24-7 only five minutes into the second quarter, the Redskins opened up their passing game.
Going exclusively to his wide-outs, Johnson threw for touchdowns of 17 and 11 yards to Westbrook and 62 and 32 yards to Connell to turn around a 28-point deficit in a matter of 12: 14, lifting the Redskins to a 35-24 lead with 10: 21 left in the third quarter.
"As a whole, there's more explosive players on this team than I've ever been around," Johnson said. "I don't think there's enough balls in a game to go around. We have too many weapons."
The Redskins stalled offensively on their next four possessions, gaining just one first down. That allowed Carolina to creep back with two field goals by Kasay and a 6-yard pass from Steve Beuerlein to Wesley Walls, putting the Panthers ahead, 36-35, after a failed two-point conversion with 7: 57 remaining in the game.
But the reversal of Mitchell's fumble gave the Redskins new life. The Redskins rolled down the field on Johnson's crisp passing and prevailed on Conway's first game-winning kick in the NFL. Still, the Redskins understand they helped the Panthers stay in the game, giving up 483 yards of total offense and committing 60 yards in penalties.
"We're winning our games," Green said. "We had a great example of not doing what it takes to win in the first quarter, and the rest of the game we did what it takes to win."
Pub Date: 10/04/99