Washington rallies on SNF to win NFC East title

  • Covered the Redskins for the Washington Examiner and other media outlets since 1994
  • Authored or co-authored three books on the Redskins and one on the Cleveland Browns

In a season where the Washington Football Team faced one obstacle after another, one more journey down a difficult road wasn’t a big deal.

A depleted Philadelphia Eagles team made life difficult for Washington. But the team that changed its name this offseason didn’t care.

In the end, the club got what it wanted: Its first NFC East title since 2015.

Washington beat the Eagles, 20-14, to become the third team to win a division title with a losing record. Washington won five of its last seven games to finish first, one game ahead of the New York Giants.

The last team to win the division title with a sub .500-record was the Carolina Panthers in 2014, coached by Ron Rivera, now in charge with Washington. Both required improbable second-half runs. This time, Rivera had to overcome cancer while doing so.

Seattle won its division in 2010 at 7-8-1. Both the Panthers and Seahawks won their first playoff game.

Washington (7-9) will host Tampa Bay (11-5) at 8:15 p.m. Saturday night in the first round of the playoffs.

Sunday, Washington faced an Eagles team missing 10 starters for various reasons. Then, in the fourth quarter, they inserted backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld to get him game action before the season ended.

Jalen Hurts wasn’t effective throwing the ball (7-for-20, 72 yards), but his legs gave Washington fits with 34 yards and two rushing touchdowns.

But Washington had its own problems as starting quarterback Alex Smith was playing with a strained right calf that limited his mobility. He was sacked three times and was intercepted twice. He did throw two touchdown passes as part of his 162-yard night.

However, in this season, nothing has come easy so Washington was used to having to scrap for a win. Indeed, it was appropriate that it had to scrap once more.

Philadelphia took a 14-10 lead in the second half but a drive before halftime, capped by an Alex Smith touchdown pass to tight end Logan Thomas, gave Washington the lead for good. Then, late in the third quarter, Washington stopped Philadelphia on a fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard line to protect a three-point lead. It added a field goal in the fourth quarter for the final margin. The defense forced three turnovers, with rookie end Chase Young getting one of them on a fumble recovery. Their prized rookie also recorded a sack.

Washington made the playoffs for only the sixth time since owner Dan Snyder bought the team in 1999. It hasn’t won a playoff game since 2005, when it won at Tampa. Rivera pointed out during the week that nobody expected Washington to be in this position. But this was also as much about nobody predicting the NFC East to be this bad. A 7-9 record for Washington wasn’t far-fetched; the team had a strong, young defensive corps and after a chaotic 2019, Rivera’s steady hand calmed the organization. It helped, too, that Jack Del Rio gave Washington its best defensive coordinator in a decade.

No franchise endured more chaos during the summer, with name changes and allegations over past employees and with an owner battling with his three minority owners, all of whom want to sell. They cut a possible starting running back in July, Derrius Guice, after he was arrested on multiple charges of assault and domestic violence. They cut their former starting quarterback Dwayne Haskins a week ago.

Rivera was tasked to handle it all, serving as the face of the franchise. Then, on Aug. 20, Rivera disclosed that he had squamous cell cancer and, though it was caught in time and had a high survival rate, he would need to undergo treatments.

They lasted seven weeks, with Rivera needing five sessions of proton therapy every week; every three weeks, he needed chemotherapy. He missed only three practices, but fatigue often overwhelmed him and he couldn’t coach the way he wanted, often leaving the facility late in the afternoon.

Then there was Smith, who overcame a gruesome leg injury that almost everyone anticipated would lead to his retirement. He fought the organization’s desire to put him on injured reserve and was finally inserted after Dwayne Haskins was benched and his replacement, Kyle Allen, was injured.

Washington went 5-1 with Smith as a starter; 2-8 with anyone else. Since Smith arrived in Washington in 2018, the team is 11-5 in games he starts and 6-26 when anyone else does. His story – overcoming 17 surgeries and near-amputation of his right leg following his 2018 injury – helped inspire his teammates. His wife, Liz, had the leg brace he wore for eight months re-shaped to resemble the Lombardi Trophy.

Rivera noticed how winnable the East was early in the season when, after four weeks, nobody in the division had more than one win. Rivera benched Haskins, ostensibly to start someone more experienced in their offense but also because they were severely displeased with his game-week preparation.

Even at 2-7, Washington remained alive. A four-game winning streak put Washington in control, where it remained despite entering Sunday with a two-game losing streak.

“One of the questions I’ve gotten early on is: what’s the character of this club? What’s the hallmark?” Rivera said on Friday. “Honestly, I couldn’t tell you that other than I think they truly are a resilient bunch.”

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