The Redskins' backs were to the wall on Sunday against Oakland. Having lost their first three games, they trailed 14-3 in a game they had to win to maintain any realistic playoff hopes.
But early in the second quarter, rookie cornerback David Amerson made his first career interception and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown. The play was pivotal. The Redskins went on to post a 24-14 victory and left Oakland breathing new life.
Amerson's pick-six evoked memories of a play that revived Washington's 2001 season, when the situation was even more dire. On Oct. 21, 2001, the 0-5 Redskins trailed Carolina, 14-0, with 10 minutes to play at FedExField.
Then came a reversal of fortunes. Carolina quarterback Chris Weinke's pass in the flat bounced off the hands of fullback Chris Heatherington. Redskins star linebacker LaVar Arrington, knocked woozy earlier in the game after taking a knee to the head, intercepted the ball and raced 67 yards unimpeded for a touchdown.
Arrington's play changed the complexion of the game, just like Amerson's did. On their next possession against Carolina, the rejuvenated Redskins tied the game on quarterback Tony Banks' 85-yard strike to rookie receiver Rod Gardner.
Redskins kicker Brett Conway missed a 32-yard field goal at the end of regulation. But he hit a 23-yarder in overtime for a 17-14 victory.
"I thought I was getting ready to make a big hit," said Arrington, still looking dazed after the game. "Then (Heatherington) tipped it, and I was saying to myself, `Don't drop it. Don't drop the ball.' I wasn't going to let anybody catch me from behind."
"I didn't think it would take this long, but it did," said Marty Schottenheimer, who was in his first and what would be his only year as Redskins coach. "I'm more delighted for the players than for myself. They didn't give up."
Before his touchdown pass to Gardner, Banks had been booed by a hostile crowd at FedExField. He sounded relieved afterward.
"We got that monkey off our backs, but now we've got a few more monkeys to get off our backs," he said.
Four more weeks brought four more victories. In convincing wins over the Giants (35-21) and the Seahawks (27-14) at FedExField, Banks looked sharp and running back Stephen Davis twice rushed for more than 100 yards.
The Redskins then topped the Mike Shanahan-coached Broncos in sloppy conditions in Denver, 17-10. Backup quarterback Kent Graham replaced Banks, who suffered a concussion, and threw two scoring passes in the fourth quarter, including the game-winner with less than three minutes remaining.
The 4-5 Redskins were set for a showdown at Veterans Stadium against the 6-3 Eagles, holders of first place in the NFC East. Could the red-hot Redskins pull off the big upset?
Final score: 13-3 Washington.
The key to the win was the Redskins' ability to neutralize Eagles all-everything quarterback Donovan McNabb, who passed for only 92 yards and rushed for 39. Arrington shadowed him all game.
The 5-5 Redskins were suddenly a game behind the 6-4 Eagles in the NFC East, an unfathomable scenario a few weeks prior. The Redskins were the talk of the league and earned a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
They also were the first 0-5 NFL team to win its next five games. Arrington, a three-time Pro Bowler named last year to the Redskins' 80 Greatest Team, compared the resurgence to the awakening of a "sleeping giant."
The Redskins went 3-3 the rest of the way and missed the playoffs. (Since the start of the 16-game season in 1978, no team has lost its first five games and made the postseason.) But their dramatic turnaround will long be a conversation piece in Redskins history.
Will Amerson's play and the Redskins' subsequent victory jumpstart this year's team for the long haul? Stay tuned.