Drew Brees led the Saints' offense onto the field with a chance to complete an unlikely comeback in the final minutes, only to throw another errant pass.
Washington safety DeJon Gomes snagged Brees' overthrown ball for receiver Lance Moore and returned it to the New Orleans 4, setting up the decisive touchdown in the Redskins' 40-32 victory over the Saints on Sunday.
Brees completed fewer than half his passes for the first time since Dec. 24, 2006, part of a sloppy, penalty-marred performance as New Orleans lost at home for the first time since 2010.
"It's hard to believe we even had a chance to tie it at the end," Brees said. "When you make that many mistakes, you don't deserve to win."
Brees still finished with 339 yards and three touchdowns, including scoring passes of 33 yards to Lance Moore, 20 to Jimmy Graham and 2 to Darren Sproles. That might have been enough if not for Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III, the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor selected second overall in the draft.
Showing a veteran's composure by scrambling only when necessary, Griffin tormented New Orleans' defense with 320 yards passing and two touchdowns, a performance that drew compliments from Brees.
"You can win a high school state championship and a bowl game in college, but to play in the NFL, the pinnacle of it all, and win your first game against a Hall of Famer in Drew Brees, it's at the top," Griffin said while cradling the game ball he had just been given. "After the game, (Brees) told me he was proud of me. That's big for him to say after he just lost the game."
New Orleans hoped to open the season with a defiant show of force in the wake of the bounty scandal that overshadowed its offseason. The Saints also got a boost Friday when a three-member appeals panel reinstated defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jon Vilma, who had been suspended for their roles in the Saints' alleged pay-for-pain bounty program.
Smith started, while Vilma, deemed unfit to play after offseason knee surgery, received a rousing ovation when he walked onto the field to lead the Saints' traditional pregame "Who-dat" chant.
Instead of riding that emotional high, the Saints spent much of the game trying to keep up.
Griffin completed his first eight passes. His seventh, released just before he was leveled on by blitzing safety Malcolm Jenkins, hit Pierre Garcon in stride over the middle for an 88-yard touchdown.
Griffin finished 19 of 26 with no interceptions and a passer rating of 139.9. He also scrambled for 42 yards.
Rookie Alfred Morris rushed for 96 yards and two touchdowns. Receiver Aldrick Robinson had a 5-yard touchdown catch.
Brees quickly dismissed the idea that disruptions from the bounty probe, which resulted in a season-long suspension for coach and offensive mastermind Sean Payton, were to blame for New Orleans' shaky start.
"Not at all. It's the NFL. You better bring it every week," Brees said. "They just came in and played better than we did, made fewer mistakes than we did, made more plays than we did."
In fact, Brees' expectations for the rest of the season hardly seemed diminished.
"We lost the first game of last year and finished 13-3," Brees said. "So there's no doubt that we can do it."
The Saints never gave in even after Brees first interception set up Washington's final TD. Sproles' TD with 2:25 left made it a one-possession game again, and the Saints got the ball back once more with 22 seconds left, but Brees' desperation pass was intercepted by Reed Doughty near the Redskins' goal line as time ran out.
That marked the second interception for Brees, who in 2011 completed a single-season record 71.2 percent of his passes, but managed to hit on only 46 percent (24 of 52) against Washington.
"That makes you angry," Brees said, raising his eyebrows and shaking his head. "We're better than that and we're going to be better than that."
Griffin, a Texas native, whose family is from New Orleans, had been to Saints games in the dome before and seemed unfazed by the noise.
In the second quarter, he danced out of the pocket to avoid pass rushers before rifling a pass across the field to tight end Fred Davis for a 26-yard gain. He punctuated another scramble with a 27-yard pass to Santana Moss, setting up Billy Cundiff's second field goal, which made it 20-7.
Shortly before halftime, Marques Colston fumbled a reception inside the Redskins 5 and the ball squirted out of the end zone for a touchback. But Martez Wilson blocked Sav Rocca's punt and Courtney Roby scooped up the ball for a touchdown to make it 20-14.
Washington responded to open the second half, aided by a pass interference call against safety Roman Harper on a long pass into the end zone. The Saints vigorously disputed the call with the replacement officials, but to no avail.
Morris scored easily from the 1.
The Saints might not have been pleased with the officials, but it was mostly their own mistakes that cost them — penalized 12 times for 107 yards.
"Today the difference was penalties," said Saints interim coach Aaron Kromer. "It was third-and-long way too many times."
NOTES: The Saints started the game thin in the secondary when Jabari Greer (groin) was a pregame scratch. It got worse when Johnny Patrick hurt his right leg breaking up a pass in the second quarter. ... WR Devery Henderson left the game in the second half after taking a shot to the head. ... Saints LB Scott Shanle left the game with an unspecified leg injury. ... Garcon went out with a right foot injury. ... Redskins S Jordan Bernstine hurt his right knee on kick coverage.
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL