BALTIMORE – Beauty is easily appreciated. Whether it’s in a bouncing baby, a majestic sunset or panoramic landscape, elements can come together to form an exceedingly pleasing visual stew.
The same is true in football. When an offense is clicking and a defense is sticking, when X’s and O’s work exactly as they’re drawn, it’s a wonderful thing. There’s a sense that nothing gets much better than that.
No one will confuse Washington’s football team with lovely NFL counterparts in New England and Pittsburgh. But after defeating Baltimore to win its third consecutive game, Washington can’t be mistaken for a losing team, either. The Skins prevailed, 16-10 at M&T Bank Stadium, in typical non-glamorous fashion, with stretches of play that caused winces, groans and shudders.
“It’s never going to be pretty when you come here,” coach John Gruden said. “This is a tough place to play.”
His team is growing to be as tough as any venue it visits. The Skins won’t fare well in beauty pageants. But they’re grisly and brawny and unsightly enough to overcome early deficit and two turnovers in a stadium where the home team has averaged fewer than two losses since 2007.
Pointing out the capricious caroms of an oblong object sounds like excuse-making when you’re on the short end of the score. Bad breaks and losing can seem to go hand-in-hand. But there’s no denying that Washington was the recipient of some fortuitous bounces against the Ravens.
Consider the near-disastrous interception by linebacker C.J. Mosely with Washington holding a 13-10 lead at its 1-yard line midway through the third quarter. Mosely soared to snare a pass intended for Jordan Reed and rambled toward the goal line. But in stretching for the pylon he lost control of the ball, which rolled out of bounds in the end zone for a touchback. Had the ball gone out a half-revolution earlier, the Ravens would have retained possession near Washington’s goal line.
Fate smiled on the Skins again early in the fourth quarter, with the Ravens trailing by the final margin. Center Spencer Long’s shotgun snap on 3rd-and-1 was delivered before Kirk Cousins was ready. Cousins retrieved the ball at his own 32-yard line and got off a blind heave in the vicinity of DeSean Jackson, narrowly avoiding an intentional-grounding penalty or a more-calamitous turnover.
“A lot of it is you just have to play the game,” Gruden said. “The ball bounces the way the ball bounces. The referees call what they’re going to call. You just have to stay focused and go on to the next play, whatever happens. I think we do a good job of that.”
That mindset was put to the test from the beginning, when Baltimore took the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards in nine plays for a 7-0 lead. “I thought, ‘Here we go again,’” Gruden said of a defense that has been gashed all season, even during the two-game win streak it brought to Baltimore. But the unit reached down and limited the Ravens to a field over the game’s final 55 minutes.
“Defensively, we’ve been ugly the last two weeks,” linebacker Will Compton said. “This week we did good. This is the NFL, man. That’s what happens. It comes down to a few plays.”
Few have the impact of a special-teams touchdown and Jamison Crowder put Washington on the board with one, an 85-yard punt return in which he found another gear to avoid the last would-be tackler. The Skins went ahead after the swirling wind affected Sam Koch’s punt, giving Washington possession at midfield. Three Cousins’ passes was all it took – the last one a 21-yard strike to Pierre Garcon in the left corner of the end zone.
Pedestrian numbers abounded. Cousins passed for 260 yards. Washington gained 60 on the ground. Garcon’s 56 receiving yards topped the team. But Baltimore’s were barely better. Joe Flacco was sacked three times and limited to 201 passing yards. Travis West did gain 95 yards rushing on 11 carries, but the Ravens mysteriously went away from him (only four carries in the second half).
It wasn’t pretty by any means. But it felt like a knockout.
“When you come to Baltimore and get a win on the road against this team, it’s an accomplishment,” Gruden said. “No matter what your stats are or what happened.”
You can argue that the difference in play during the 0-2 start and the 3-0 response is negligible. Have fun. But you can’t deny Washington possesses a gritty toughness that appears to be spreading.
“Resiliency can be contagious,” Garcon said. “When you see a guy going extra hard, we’re all competitors and you don’t want to see anybody go harder than you.”
“It’s good to know we have a gritty team when games are close,” Compton said. “What we have to do is not make it so close all the time. We have to find ways to get in the lead, hold a lead, all that type of stuff. But it’s good to know we have a team like this.”
The players don’t have a problem with winning ugly.
They only hear the first part of the phrase.