Washington workhorse Earnest Byner carried the Redskins to their first playoff berth in three years. Then coach Joe Gibbs piled more responsibilities on the sturdy shoulders of the running back.
"He's a good leader," Gibbs said after Washington's 25-10 victory Saturday over the New England Patriots (1-13). "If we are to do well in the playoffs, we need a leader as a running back."Byner ran a career-high 39 times through a driving rainstorm for 149 yards and a touchdown - his third straight 100-yard rushing game - as the Redskins (9-5) won their third consecutive game while running just 56 offensive plays.
He reached a career-high of 1,031 yards in a season, surpassing his only other 1,000-yard year, 1985, when he gained 1,002 with Cleveland.
"The 1,000 yards is a tribute to the offensive linemen," said Byner, the NFC's second leading rusher. "The coaches told me to just keep pounding the ball. The (artificial turf) field held up well. It wasn't slippery."
The Redskins' first post-season appearance since they won the 1988 Super Bowl will be as a wild-card team from the NFC East. The New York Giants have clinched the division title.
"We've got to hold it together for that home-field advantage. We've still got a lot to play for," Gibbs said. "I'm thrilled. It's been 21/2 years waiting for this. It seemed like forever to me."
It hadn't been quite that long, only 90 days, since the Patriots' last victory, 16-14 over Indianapolis. They extended their club record to 12 consecutive losses.
"We were more competitive but we still didn't win," defensive end Brent Williams said. "We didn't get enough done. That's the bottom line."
The Redskins got nine points before their offense got the ball, scoring on Kurt Gouveia's 39-yard fumble return after a botched handoff from Tommy Hodson to John Stephens and a safety in the first three minutes.
"I made a couple of fumbles and that's negative," Hodson said. "The turnovers really hurt."
"We had some bad things happen to us early," Patriots coach Rod Rust said. "That's hard to overcome."
The Patriots set a record for the lowest attendance in a regular-season, non-strike game in their 20 years at Foxboro Stadium, 22,286. The previous record was 22,383 against Indianapolis on Dec. 16, 1984. They have played before the four smallest crowds in the NFL this year.
New England, usually out of contention by the fourth quarter, chipped away at a 19-0 halftime deficit on Stephens' 4-yard scoring run in the third quarter and Jason Staurovsky's 42-yard field goal with 11:08 left in the game.
"It was a hard game for us," Gibbs said. "They looked like they were going to make a game of it in the third quarter."
Despite the game-long downpour, Byner became the eighth back in eight weeks to ramble through the Patriots' defense for more than 100. New England is last in the NFL in rushing defense.
Byner scored on a 5-yard run 2:14 into the second quarter, capping a 12-play, 68-yard drive on which he ran 10 times for 29 yards. It made the score 16-0.
The Patriots punted on the next series, and the Redskins came right back with an 11-play, 59-yard march. They had a first down at the New England 9-yard line, but settled for Chip Lohmiller's 19-yard field goal after Mark Rypien's third-down incompletion in the end zone.
Lohmiller added a 38-yarder with 4:42 to play and, following a New England turnover, kicked a 26-yarder with 2:30 left.
Stephens' touchdown with 5:30 left in the third quarter was New England's first in eight quarters. It came one play after Hodson's 23-yard completion to Hart Lee Dykes and three after Byner's fumble was recovered by Andre Tippett at the Washington 26-yard line.
The first half was filled with mistakes for the Patriots. They were penalized nine times for 90 yards, and Hodson was sacked three times.
Then there were the first two scoring plays.
On New England's third offensive play, a mistimed handoff from Hodson to Stephens resulted in a fumble that Gouveia caught in mid-air. He ran untouched for the first touchdown in his four pro seasons.
The Patriots failed to get a first down on their next series. With the ball at their 15, Chris Gannon snapped it over punter Brian Hansen's head and out of the end zone for a safety.