Surging Washington Primed to Stay Hot, Secure 2nd Straight Playoff Appearance

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystNovember 30, 2021

LANDOVER, MARYLAND - NOVEMBER 29: Antonio Gibson #24 of the Washington Football Team carries the ball against the Seattle Seahawks during the third quarter at FedExField on November 29, 2021 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Washington Football Team's season already experienced a greater rebirth from an apparent demise than the renewed Ghostbusters franchise. 

Ron Rivera's squad certainly ain't afraid of no adversity. 

After looking dead and buried from a 2-6 start with an awful defense and no good solutions on the offensive side of the ball, the Football Team punctuated a three-game winning streak with Monday's 17-15 victory over the Seattle Seahawks at FedEx Field that placed it into the NFC's seventh playoff seed. 

"It meant a lot just because of the way these guys fight, just how resilient they are," Rivera said after the contest. 

Washington appears to be on a similar trajectory as last season. In 2020, the nameless ones started 2-7 before winning five of their last seven and claiming a division title in the hapless NFC East. In fact, the franchise has made a habit of starting slowly before each of its most recent postseason pushes. As the Washington Post's Dan Steinberg noted, Washington held a sub-.500 record 11 games into the season before making its last five playoff appearances. 

Sure, the division is tougher than it was a year ago. But the path is clear for Washington to make a similar late-season surge and secure a second straight playoff appearance through outstanding trench play, a strong running game, Taylor Heinicke's improvement and a defense performing much better. 

Over the last three weeks, Washington has defeated the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers with Tom Brady, the Carolina Panthers with Cam Newton, and the Seahawks with Russell Wilson. Those three quarterbacks each threw for 247 or fewer yards. 

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The bye week came at the right time for a banged-up Washington squad. 

LANDOVER, MARYLAND - NOVEMBER 29: Head coach Ron Rivera of the Washington Football Team looks on during warmups before the game against the Seattle Seahawks at FedExField on November 29, 2021 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images)
Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

"I'd like to believe that as we progress through the season, especially my early years as a head coach, a lot of things seem to come together," Rivera told reporters going into the team's week away from active competition. "[Last season] things kind of came together at the right time for us. I like to believe we are on the same path."

The coach was right.

Washington is still missing key pieces such as defensive ends Chase Young and Montez Sweat, center Chase Roullier and right tackle Sam Cosmi. The team did get a couple of vital components back this week with Curtis Samuel and Logan Thomas playing. Neither created much of an impact with a combined four catches for 40 yards. However, their presence in the lineup will make Washington's offense more dynamic moving forward.

Samuel is an explosive player when healthy, and his ability to create in space will be a tremendous asset once he's a little further along in his groin-injury recovery. Thomas, meanwhile, can be Heinicke's security blanket as one of the game's better receiving tight ends. In the coming weeks, expect both to be bigger parts of Washington's offensive game plan.  

Furthermore, having two starters out along the offense's front five hasn't been used as an excuse. Cornelius Lucas, an experienced veteran with 28 career starts, has filled in for Cosmi. Wes Schweitzer initially took over snapping duties, but an injury forced Keith Ismael into the lineup. No problem. 

Washington's identity is now built through an offensive line with Brandon Scherff, Ereck Flowers and Charles Leno Jr. leading the way. The group is physical, athletic and capable of taking over games, as it did at points against Seattle. While Heinicke has performed much better in recent weeks, Washington isn't forced to lean on its quarterback. The running game is more than capable of being the focal point and consistently putting the squad in favorable down-and-distances. 

Antonio Gibson has the potential to be a special back. That potential has shown itself over the last two weeks. After a somewhat slow start to the campaign, the second-year running back managed 206 rushing yards against the Panthers and Seahawks. He posted 111 on a career-high 29 carries Monday. 

To better illustrate how Washington has controlled games as of late, opponents have averaged just over 21 minutes times of possession since the bye, per the Washington Post's Nicki Jhabavala

Good offensive line play and a strong ground-and-pound approach make life easier on the quarterback. In turn, improved quarterback play helps open up everything else in the offense. Heinicke wasn't supposed to be the starter this season, despite his outstanding performance in the opening round of the 2020 playoffs against the eventual Super Bowl champs. A hip injury has prevented Ryan Fitzpatrick from playing since Week 1. 

Mark Tenally/Associated Press

Coming out of the bye, Heinicke has completed 77.5 percent of his passes with a five-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio. 

"You can tell he has a rhythm out there," wide receiver Terry McLaurin said last week. "He's very comfortable with the guys that are out there. He's comfortable with the play-calling. And when things don't look the greatest out there, he does a great job of improvising and keeping plays alive."

McLaurin's final point is important because Washington's quarterback isn't just a cog in the machine. He has some creativity to his game when everything starts to break down around him. Heinicke will never be mistaken for one of the NFL's more athletic quarterbacks, but he slinks and spins away from pressure and extends plays on a consistent basis. 

His combination of competitiveness and a little playmaking ability goes a long way, even if he's not the most gifted natural passer. Washington knows it is not set at the game's most important position, but Heinicke gives it a chance to win now

With a 5-2 conference record and several divisional games upcoming, Washington controls its destiny. Of the team's remaining contests, five of them—two against the Dallas Cowboys, two against the Philadelphia Eagles and one against the New York Giants—come against NFC East rivals. The Las Vegas Raiders, whom Washington plays Sunday, is the lone nonconference opponent. 

The NFC isn't exactly filled with quality opposition, either. Aside from the conference's top three squads—the Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers—the next nine teams have between five and seven victories. That's how tightly contested the race is at the moment. 

Washington holds the keys to open the gates for life after the regular season. 


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.


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