After a productive first half on offense, the Redskins were struggling to manage anything positive in the second half. They were held scoreless in the third quarter, allowing Carolina to narrow the lead to only one score.
Washington got the ball back and needed to show some life. And they did, just not in a conventional way.
Alex Smith led the offense on a 12-play drive that chewed up 7:28 of game time, which only managed 42 yards.
On third-and-8 from the Carolina 40-yard line, Smith dropped back to pass and was strip sacked by defensive end Julius Peppers. The ball popped up out of Smith's hands, did a few rotations and landed in the arms of left tackle Trent Williams.
Williams got upfield in a hurry, and dragged defensive end Mario Addison along with him, getting the ball back into the edge of field goal range.
The 318-pound left tackle said his only goal was to not fumble, seeing as he doesn't get the chance to touch the ball often. Running back and longtime best friend Adrian Peterson had some other ideas for how Williams should have carried the ball.
"I thought he was going to maybe hit a spin move or something," Peterson told reporters after the game. "I was expecting a little more, I thought maybe a spin and then high-step into the end zone."
"A spin move? Yeah he can continue wanting that," Williams retorted.
While the play was mostly dumb luck, it turned out to be a key factor in Washington's win. By getting that ball to the Carolina 38, Williams set kicker Dustin Hopkins up for the biggest kick of his life.
Okay it might not have been his most important kick (he nailed a 55-yard game winner as a freshman at Florida State), but it was his longest. The 56-yarder was a new career long for Hopkins, and it was enough to make it a two-score game again.
"First of all, I'm just glad that coach sent me out," Hopkins said. "It shows confidence in me and I'm glad to go out there for the team, but I was glad he showed confidence in me."
Having the coach trust you is always a good feeling for a kicker, but to be fair head coach Jay Gruden might not have known exactly how long the kick was when he told Hopkins to go for it.
"That was good," Gruden said. "I thought it was more of a 53-yarder but then I saw the 56-yarder, I got a little bit more nervous and almost took a time out, but I trust Dustin and Dustin knocked it through – big time kick."
Hopkins had a good humour about it when he found out that Gruden didn't know the kick was a 56-yarder.
"I just talked up the confidence he had in me sending me out. I guess I gotta take that back now," he sad."
Check out the top photos from the Redskins' Week 6 game against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, October 14th, 2018 at FedExField.
Happy accident or not, the field goal ended up being key in the Redskins' 23-17 win over the Panthers. Carolina had the ball in the red zone to end the game, but went for it on fourth-and-5 because they were down six. If Hopkins hadn't gone 3-for-3 on field goals that day, including his new personal best, then Carolina might have sent the game to overtime.
Instead the Redskins got a big fourth-down stop and collected their third win of the season, one that puts them back in first place in their division. They'll get a chance to defend that placeholder next week, when the second place Dallas Cowboys come to FedExField for their first matchup of the season.
Special teams play was a big story all day. Punter Tress Way pinned the Panthers deep inside their 20-yard line twice, each resulting in a drive without a score for Carolina.
But the biggest punt play came on Way's 51-yard boot to the Carolina 21, where Panthers rookie wide receiver fielded the punt, dodged the first few Redskins gunners and then coughed up the football when linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton punched it out. Tight end Jeremy Sprinkle dove on it to set up a one play scoring drive by way of a 22-yard touchdown catch for Vernon Davis.
It was tone-setter for Washington, and a premier example of how special teams play merits its place in the many "all three phases" of the game speeches given by players and coaches around the league.