LANDOVER, Md.—Few and far between have been the breaks for the Washington Football Team in 2020.
Much of the adversity has been self-inflicted, from front-office dysfunction to mental and physical mistakes on the field. It didn’t help that a new coach and a presumptive new starting quarterback didn’t get a full offseason of preparation, but then neither did the rest of the NFL.
So it came as a bit of surprise when some good fortune arose Sunday, and darned if Ron Rivera’s team didn’t take advantage of it for a change in a 20–9 victory over the visiting Cincinnati Bengals.
If Washington can extend that trend, December football may mean something in D.C. for the first time in while.
“We’re still in it in the NFC East,” said defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, the team’s second-longest-tenured player. “As weird as it is to say, we’re still in it.”
That’s true—at least until Thursday, when Washington (3–7) visits Dallas with a chance to take sole leadership of what can’t really be called a race for the NFC East lead. A 17-week limp seems more like it, but the opportunity is there—no matter what motivates you.
“It’s Thanksgiving,” rookie defensive end Chase Young said. “LeBron [James, a noted Cowboys fan] is going to be watching; everybody’s going to be watching. It’s that time to get that money.”
Last month, Washington exploited Dak Prescott’s absence and routed Dallas 28—3. On Sunday, Young and his teammates knocked out impressive rookie quarterback Joe Burrow early in the second half and dominated afterwards, holding the Bengals to 25 second-half yards.
Said Young: “We definitely took over after that. The sacks started coming, and everything started falling into place.”
This team hasn’t exactly made a habit of taking advantage of gifts. A week ago, Young’s roughing-the-passer penalty allowed Detroit to kick a game-winning field goal on the final play.
On Sunday, the 2–7–1 Bengals held a 9–7 halftime lead that should have been much larger, but a missed field goal, shanked extra point and Burrow’s goal-line fumble kept Washington close. Then, Burrow left on a cart after getting hit high by Montez Sweat and low by Jonathan Allen, suffering a knee injury that ended his promising first year.
The Bengals’ offense became punchless behind backup Ryan Finley, and their defense seemed deflated as well. To Washington’s credit, the home team took advantage with a rare win that wasn’t pretty, but serves the purpose.
“The sense of urgency was nice,” said quarterback Alex Smith, who earned his first victory since being carted off the same field two years earlier. “There was no panic, but we knew we had to do something every time we touched the football.”
Now, Smith and company have a chance to win a wretched division that deserves soccer-style relegation. They’ll have a short week to prepare for their biggest game of the season.
Earn the season’s first road victory, and they still could conceivably host a playoff game in January. Lose, and it’s hard to find another winnable game on the schedule.
“For us to still be in it at this point gives us hope,” rookie running back Antonio Gibson said.
One other thing in Washington’s favor is Smith. It’s important to note that the team was 6–3 and leading the division when he suffered his compound leg fracture in 2018. Sunday’s victory looked a lot like the boring but effective victories he racked up that year.
Now that he’s worked his way back, Smith is the division’s most accomplished and experienced quarterback—no small consideration on a team with a plethora of young skill-position players.
“He relaxes the huddle a little bit,” Gibson said.
Added second-year receiver Terry McLaurin: “He never makes it about him. He has every reason to [say], ‘Look at my comeback story, look what I’ve done’ But he’s makes it about the team. ... You just can’t quantify enough [the value of] his experience playing.”
In any normal year, Washington would be playing for pride, draft position and next year’s roster spots. But this is no normal year. By Thanksgiving night, we should know whether Smith and his team have any hope to stealing a division title that’s there for the taking.
“We’re developing,” Smith said. “We have an incredibly young team. We’re still finding out who we are, our strengths and how to win. ... It’s important for us to keep getting better.”
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