LANDOVER, Md. — “R-G-3!” was all Redskins fans needed to chant when they wanted to express their love for Robert Griffin III. For the lesser-known rookie, they opted for his whole name: “Alf-red Mor-ris!”
It’s a new generation that has Washington atop the NFC East for the first time this millennium. There’s Griffin — the vocal leader, the first-round draft pick, the Heisman Trophy winner, the team captain. And there’s Morris — the out-of-nowhere sixth-rounder from Florida Atlantic who merely ran for 200 yards and three touchdowns in the division-clincher and broke the franchise single-season rushing record.
“These,” cornerback DeAngelo Hall said, “aren’t ordinary rookies.”
The Redskins claimed their first division title since 1999, beating the archrival Dallas Cowboys 28-18 Sunday night in a winner-take-all finale to end the NFL’s regular season.
“I was 9 years old in 1999,” said Griffin, sporting a black baseball cap commemorating the title. “So I stand before you at 22, and the Redskins are the NFC East champions. To me, talking to Alfred after the game, it’s the first time the Redskins have been champs since ‘99 and we came in and we did it in one year. The sky’s the limit for this team.”
Griffin, gradually regaining his explosiveness after spraining his right knee four weeks ago, ran for 63 yards and a touchdown for the Redskins (10-6), who finished with seven straight wins after their bye week. They became the first NFL team to rally from 3-6 and make the playoffs since the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1996.
With the running game working so well, Griffin didn’t have to throw much. He completed nine of 18 passes for 100 yards.
Washington will host Seattle next Sunday, the Redskins’ third consecutive playoff game against the Seahawks. They lost at Seattle as a wild-card team in the 2005 and 2007 seasons.
“I’ve been here for the 4-12, the bad times, almost being the joke of the NFL,” veteran defensive lineman Kedric Golston said. “But to do this with this group of guys — the old and the new — it’s good to be here.”
Certainly, Sunday night was mostly about the new. Morris had touchdown runs of 1, 17 and 32 yards and was so dominant that the Cowboys — missing their five best run defenders due to injuries — fell hook, line and sinker nearly every time the Redskins faked the ball to him. He finished with 1,613 yards for the year, topping Clinton Portis’ 1,516 in 2005.
“I’ll tell you what: Alfred Morris became a star tonight,” Redskins tight end Chris Cooley said. “He deserved it. He’s a phenomenal football player.”
To which Morris answered: “I’m never a star. I’ll never be a star. Other people might think I’m a star, but I’m just Alfred.”
He won’t have much choice if he keeps this up. On the Redskins’ go-ahead drive in the third quarter, six plays were runs by Morris and the other three involved fakes to him. The touchdown came when Griffin faked to Morris — one of several times linebacker DeMarcus Ware was totally fooled by deception in the backfield — and ran 10 yards around left end to put Washington ahead 14-7.
The Cowboys (8-8), meanwhile, will miss the playoffs for the third straight season, having stumbled in a make-or-break end-of-regular-season game for the third time in five years.
Tony Romo threw three interceptions — matching his total from the last eight games combined. A poor throw was picked by Rob Jackson when the Cowboys had a chance to drive for a winning score in the final minutes.
“I feel as though I let our team down,” Romo said.
Romo completed 20 of 31 passes for 218 yards, and his career is now further tainted by post-Christmas disappointments, including Week 17 losses to the Philadelphia Eagles (44-6) in 2008 and the New York Giants (31-14) last year. He’s also 1-3 in playoff games.
“Your legacy will be written when you’re done playing the game,” Romo said. “And when it’s over with, you’ll look back. … It’s disappointing not being able to get over that hump.”
The Cowboys played catch-up after Morris’ 32-yard scamper gave the Redskins a 21-10 cushion with 10:32 to play, pulling within three on a 10-yard pass to Kevin Ogletree and a 2-point conversion with 5:50 left. But Morris’ third touchdown sealed the win with 1:09 remaining.
The Cowboys also dealt with in-game injuries to receivers Miles Austin (left ankle), Dez Bryant (back) and Dwayne Harris (lower leg). Bryant, who had a torrid second half of the season despite breaking his left index finger, had four catches for 71 yards.
Washington’s slow start this season prompted coach Mike Shanahan to dismiss playoff hopes and declare the remaining seven games would determine which players would be on his team “for years to come.”
Griffin and his teammates had other plans, and the coach quickly changed his tune. Now the Redskins will be playing in January.
“All odds were against us,” Morris said. “But we believed in each other.”
Notes: Griffin set two more NFL rookie records. His 102.4 passer rating topped Ben Roethlisberger’s 98.1 in 2004, and his 1.3 percentage of passes intercepted is better than Charlie Batch’s 1.98 in 1998. Griffin had already set the league mark for rushing yards by a rookie QB (815). … The Redskins also set a franchise record for fewest turnovers in a season with 14, fewer even than the 1982 team that played only nine regular-season games because of a players strike.