An ironic ending in an iconic rivalry left the crowd gaping, the Redskins escaping and the Dallas Cowboys deflating.
Everything the Redskins struggled for rested on one last snap. When Tony Romo connected with Roy Williams in the end zone for what looked like the winning touchdown on the final play, all – or at least the first game of Mike Shanahan's tenure as head coach and Donovan McNabb's debut at quarterback – seemed lost.
Except for that yellow flag. The one that signified a holding penalty on Dallas tackle Alex Barron, erasing the 13-yard touchdown toss.
You remember the Red Badge of Courage? This was the Yellow Flag of Salvation. No points. No time left. No more plays. The Redskins, improbably enough, had held on for a 13-7 victory while dominating no statistical area but the scoreboard.
Which, of course, is the whole idea.
The Redskins ended a three-game streak of losses to the Cowboys, won an NFC East matchup for the first time since the tail end of 2008 and won the season opener for the first time since 2007, playing in front of the largest crowd ever (90,670) for a home opener.
Their only touchdown came on DeAngelo Hall's 32-yard return of a fumble he forced on the final play of the first half. It gave the Redskins a 10-0 lead and they managed to preserve it, if not build on it much, and it put the Cowboys in a hole from which they could not escape.
Oh, they came close. And close doesn't count.
Even as the Redskins recounted that final sequence, they once again learned how thin the line is between victory and defeat. Except they now seem to have the resilience to find the right side of that line.
"It was definitely a little heart-wrenching but I did see the flag on the field," Hall said. "I saw the referee make the holding signal and I ran off the field."
The Redskins allowed yards (380) but not points. They applied pressure to Romo, though they got produced just one sack. They got the game's only turnover, scored on defense, covered their weaknesses by playing to their strengths.
"Offensively, we just have to be able to close it out ourselves," said McNabb, who completed fewer than half of his pass attempts for only 171 yards. "I would be hard on ourselves and say we didn't get the job done today."
Nine possessions. Twice in the red zone. One field goal and one botched field goal attempt. After Graham Gano kicked a 29-yard field goal on the first possession – marking the first time the Redskins had scored on their initial series of a season since 2006 – they punted on six of their next seven possessions.
"They have a good defense but we scored six points," tight end Chris Cooley said. "You're not a good offense if you score six points."
Sometimes the trouble was home-brewed. Take the first drive of the third quarter. The Redskins pushed to the Dallas 18 and then had Gano kick a 36-yard field goal. Nothing wrong with 13-0. But the Cowboys were offside and Shanahan opted to take the penalty and the first down that came with it, rather than the points.
The Redskins escaped further when Terrence Newman's end-zone interception was nullified by his pass-interference penalty. Again the Redskins stalled and this time, with a high pass from new long snapper Nick Sundberg, holder Josh Bidwell could not set the ball for another Gano attempt.
So it's not 13-0. It's 10-0. The Cowboys promptly cruised the length of the field to make it 10-7.
Gano kicked a 49-yard field goal with 1:56 to play but that left the Cowboys a margin they could handle and time enough to do it. It just wasn't their day. How could it be, on the final day of Dallas Week?
"You've just got to find a way to get it done and that's what our team did today," Shanahan said.
They did it with 250 yards of total offense and very little in the way of sustained drives (three of 13 on third-down conversions). They trailed in time of possession and have now gone 15 quarters against the Cowboys without scoring an offensive touchdown.
They're also 1-0 and it came within the nasty confines of the NFC East; the Redskins were 0-6 against their closest rivals a year ago.
Shanahan downplayed the idea of this being a big deal simply because it involved him and his return to coaching in the NFL.
"It's very special because Dallas is a good football team and you want to win in your stadium and we didn't win a division game last year," Shanahan said.
This one nearly got away. Romo's pass to Williams didn't count because Barron grabbed a handful of linebacker Brian Orakpo.
"If they didn't hold him, he would have got a sack," said defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth.
If. Such a small word and such a big word. If the Redskins didn't take points off the board, if the Cowboys didn't run a play that exposed the ball carrier at the end of the first half, if the Cowboys hadn't had to go to their bench to replace injured right tackle Marc Columbo with Barron.
If, if, if.
"That's a devastating loss, especially losing like that," Dallas tight end Jason Witten said.
Nothing could be more bitter … for Dallas. Or better for the Redskins.
The Redskins held on to win. The Cowboys lost. No ifs, ands or buts. While the Redskins have plenty ahead of them to iron out, they get to enjoy Victory Monday, an extra day off.
Let them savor the irony and the ecstasy.
Larry Weisman, an award-winning journalist during 25 years with USA TODAY, writes for Redskins.com and appears nightly on Redskins Nation on Comcast SportsNet. Read his Redskinsblitz blog at Redskinsrule.com and follow him on Twitter.com/LarryWeisman.