- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 27, 2020

LANDOVER — By 4:07 p.m., just minutes after kickoff, Washington officially knew that Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers would be an opportunity to clinch the NFC East. The Baltimore Ravens had done what Washington needed them to do, they had beaten the New York Giants.

Now, in Week 16, playing at home, the division title would be theirs for the taking.

But instead of becoming NFC East champions, Washington imploded over the next two hours. By 6:33 p.m., the team had benched a wholly ineffective Dwayne Haskins and thrown Taylor Heinicke under center in hopes of pulling off a miracle.  

Washington squandered a key chance Sunday to seal its first playoff berth in five years, falling 20-13 to a 5-10 Panthers team that had already been eliminated from the postseason. The team’s playoff hopes now come down to a do-or-die game next week in Philadelphia.

The stakes are clear: If Washington beats the Eagles on the road, it will make the playoffs. Lose and they’re out.

“We still control our own destiny,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said. “That’s the truth of the matter.” 

That it will come to that is baffling. Sunday’s loss to the Panthers led to a flurry of questions. For one, how does Washington, with so much on the line, fail to show up as it did? Why wasn’t Haskins pulled earlier? 

Before benching Haskins in the fourth, the team fell behind 20 points and were down by double digits for most of the contest. The deficit marked the fifth time in Haskins’ six starts this season in which Washington trailed by at least 17 points.

But problems went far beyond the quarterback. There was a muffed punt. Missed tackles. Turnovers. So many turnovers.

Haskins was just 14-for-28 for 154 yards when pulled with two interceptions and a fumble.

Heinicke was much better, but the switch came too late.

Heinicke hit running back J.D. McKissic for a 28-yard touchdown, but Washington failed to recover the onside kick on the ensuing possession. Heinicke finished with 137 yards, completing 12 of 21 passes.

Rivera said he mulled sitting Haskins earlier, but wanted to see if the quarterback could lead have a second-half surge like he did last week against Seattle.  Rivera called Heinicke’s effort “gutsy,” though declined to name a starter for the Eagles game.  Rivera said that will depend on the health of Alex Smith (calf).

Washington’s performance recalled past failures, like in 2016 when Kirk Cousins and Co. missed the playoffs with a Week 17 blunder in New York.

Rivera had hoped to avoid a similar situation, especially against his former team. Rivera, of course, spent nine years with Carolina before being fired last December. Throughout the week, Rivera said he was only focused on the playoff hunt and not on getting revenge against his old squad.

Earlier in the afternoon, Washington got the help it needed. The Ravens dominated the Giants in a 27-13 win. The loss dropped New York to 5-10, giving Washington a chance to clinch the NFC East.

But Washington needed Haskins to perform. For Haskins, the opportunity was a shot at redemption. After he was caught partying indoors without a mask following last week’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks, Haskins was fined $40,000 and stripped of his captainship as punishment. When addressing reporters on Wednesday, an emotional Haskins apologized and said he had let the team down.

From the jump, Haskins looked overwhelmed.

His passes were erratic. Long or short, he was often off the mark. He’d sail a pass deep down the field. He stared down receivers. He held the ball too long.

Haskins’ first major mistake came in the opening quarter when he dropped back and was stripped by Carolina’s Marquis Haynes deep in Panther territory. The turnover wiped out a promising drive that should have resulted in at least three points.

The fumble was just the start of a comedy of errors for Washington. With 1:53 left in the first, wide receiver Steven Sims muffed a punt that was recovered in the end zone by Carolina — giving the Panthers a 6-0 lead.

Washington’s defense wasn’t sharp early, either. Cornerback Ronald Darby missed the tackle on Curtis Samuel’s 45-yard rush, a play that paved the way for Mike Davis to punch in a one-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal.

Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (197 yards) got the ball out quickly and made Washington pay for mistakes. Following Haskins’ first interception, Bridgewater hit wideout Robby Anderson for a 14-yard score. 

By halftime, Haskins was just 6 of 15 for 36 yards with an 8.3 passer rating. He threw another interception just before time expired and Washington went into intermission down 20-3.

Washington’s only points of the half came on a 48-yarder from Dustin Hopkins.

Defense kept Washington in the contest in the third as rookie Chase Young forced a Bridgewater fumble on a strip-sack that set up another 26-yard kick.

When Rivera finally decided to bench Haskins in the fourth, he said it was because of “the sum of the parts” rather than any one play. Haskins missed key opportunities all game long, including a wide-open receiver on fourth-and-2 with 10:41 left.

That turnover on downs led Rivera to turn to Heinicke, an Old Dominion product and former Panthers backup who provided a spark but couldn’t make up the deficit. Before joining Washington’s practice squad nearly three weeks ago, Heinicke was enrolled in classes and studying for finals.

Haskins learned of the switch from quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese. A somber Haskins said he did not get a chance to speak with Rivera about the decision.

“I wish I could go back and change some things,” Haskins said, “but it’s over with now.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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