- The Washington Times - Monday, November 16, 2020

Only in the NFC East can a team be in the hunt for a playoff spot and the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft at the same time.

After Sunday’s 30-27 loss to the Detroit Lions, Washington is tied for the league’s fourth-worst record — but the team is just a game-and-a-half back of the division-leading Philadelphia Eagles, whose lead slipped after falling to the New York Giants.

The NFC East’s collective awfulness is why Washington, despite dropping two straight, is mathematically still very much alive in the race for the division title. But over the past few weeks, as losses have stacked up, Washington has started to emphasize that talking about winning the division can only go so far.

It’s time, players and coaches have said, to start winning games.

“We’re definitely a team with a lot of talent that hasn’t figured it out yet,” defensive lineman Jonathan Allen said. “We haven’t figured it out yet. We make too many mistakes, too many self-inflicted wounds during the game. We dig ourselves a hole. … We just need to buckle down.”

“The biggest thing we have to do is go out and take care of our business,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said. “We can’t worry about what happens with these (other games).”

Quarterback Alex Smith, similarly, said that Washington needs to become more consistent. With Smith under center, Washington has thrown for more than 300 yards in back-to-back games for the first time since Kirk Cousins did it in 2017. Smith has helped the development of younger receivers such as Cam Sims, Isaiah Wright and Terry McLaurin. 

Smith said after Sunday’s game that he was “stunned” that Washington had mustered only three points in the first half. Slow starts have doomed Washington all season, and the team has trailed by double digits in the first half in eight of its nine contests.

Against Detroit, Washington held the ball for more than 20 minutes in the first half — making the lack of points all the more frustrating.

“We know what kind of football that we’re capable of playing,” said Smith, who threw for a career-high 390 yards in his first start two years removed from his leg injury. “We know what kind of character and talent that we have in this locker room. It’s certainly about us going out and doing it consistently.”

Rivera has never shied away from discussion about Washington’s chances in the division. He knows firsthand what can happen when a below .500 team can sneak into the postseason: In 2014, his 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers won a mediocre NFC South and then upset the Arizona Cardinals to win a playoff game. “However you can get in, get in,” Rivera likes to say.

His comments stand in stark contrast to how other coaches have approached the division. Following the Giants’ win over the Eagles — a victory that put N.Y. one game out of first — coach Joe Judge called the NFC East’s standings “irrelevant.” Judge said his team had to focus on improving, and the division race would take care of itself.

Rivera, though, wants his players to be aware of the big picture. While he can delve into “one game at a time” coach-speak, he’s made it a point to tell them what’s at stake.

“I do think you have to know what’s going on around you,” Rivera said. “Again, to me, that’s important because if you know what’s happening around you, it keeps your focus on what you have to do.”

The oddsmakers are skeptical of Washington’s chances of winning the East. ESPN’s “Pro Football Index” gives Washington an 11% chance. The Eagles are at 63% chance.

But Washington is 2-7 — not all that different from when Carolina was 3-8-1 six years ago. The Panthers won four straight to make the playoffs. Washington could improve to 3-7 if it beats the 2-6-1 Cincinnati Bengals.

The difference between that Panthers team and this Washington squad, however, is the experience. That year, Carolina was coming off a 12-4 season and had a core who had already been to the postseason. By comparison, most of Washington’s players have no more than three years at the NFL level.

Rivera thinks that inexperience can pay off in the long run.

“That bodes well for the development of the team,” Rivera said of Washington’s youth. “Having Alex out there with those young guys right now has been a really good thing for us the last couple of weeks. We’ll continue to work and be focused and continue to play hard.”


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