Good things are taking place in Washington at the moment, and suddenly the NFC East doesn’t look so much like the Cowboys’ to lose anymore.
The Washington Football Team has responded to a four-game losing streak with a three-game winning streak entering its Sunday game at Las Vegas.
Washington (5-6) not only enters the game just 2 ¹/₂ games behind the Cowboys (8-4), but it still has both games against the rivals remaining on the schedule, at home Dec. 12 and at Dallas on Dec. 26.
Washington appears to be on a similar trajectory to the one it was on last season, when it rallied from a 2-7 start to win the division and make the playoffs.
That trend isn’t unfamiliar to Washington coach Ron Rivera. In the five seasons, his teams at Carolina and Washington have had losing records in the first half of the season five times. In four of those seasons, his teams finished .500 or better in the second half.
“I love our resilience,” Rivera said this week. “I’ve got a lot of respect for the way our guys have handled [things]. There’s been a lot of adversity circling us since we got here, a lot of it we had nothing to do with.”
Rivera was referring to the ongoing investigation of the Washington organization for a litany of wrongdoings, the worst of which is sexual harassment in the workplace. As a result, owner Daniel Snyder has stepped away from the team.
On the field, Washington lost starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the second quarter of the season opener. Both top defensive ends, Montez Sweat (broken jaw) and Chase Young (torn ACL), have been lost to injury.
Receiver Curtis Samuel, an offseason acquisition, has played in just three games because of a groin injury, and top tight end Logan Thomas missed five games with a hamstring injury.
From all of that has emerged one of the best stories in the NFL this season: journeyman quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who’s taken over for Fitzpatrick and played well, particularly during the three-game winning streak.
Heinicke was undrafted in 2015 out of Old Dominion and signed with the Vikings. He next landed with the Patriots in 2017 and spent all of three weeks on their practice squad. Then came a stint with the Texans, then Rivera’s Panthers then a stop in the XFL with the St. Louis BattleHawks in 2019.
In December 2020, Heinicke was signed to Washington’s practice squad, and he has made the most of his opportunity.
“I don’t feel like I’m surprised,” Heinicke said of the recent winning streak. “You have faith in all those guys and you trust them. We’re all doing what we’re coached to do, we’re executing at a high level right now. If we keep doing this, we keep giving our team chances to win.”
Still, Washington, which will enter Sunday in the seventh and final playoff spot in the NFC, is not taking anything for granted.
“We haven’t arrived yet,” Washington defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said this week.
“We’re not out of [the hole] completely,” Rivera said. “It wasn’t going to happen overnight. We’re coming together and being the team we envisioned.”