LANDOVER — The game was ugly. The standings are even uglier. But Sunday’s 20-9 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals gives the Washington Football Team an opportunity to do something that was unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
Three-win Washington now has a Thanksgiving Day opportunity to grab sole possession of first place in the woeful, sad-sack NFC East.
Washington, at 3-7, is just a half-game back of the division-leading 3-6-1 Philadelphia Eagles, who lost 22-17 on Sunday to the Cleveland Browns.
To take the division lead, Washington will need to travel to Dallas this week and beat the Cowboys, who are also 3-7 after clawing out a 31-28 win Sunday over the Minnesota Vikings. If Philadelphia and New York lose the following weekend, Washington could end Week 12 all alone in first.
The significance wasn’t lost on wide receiver Terry McLaurin after the victory.
“It’s hard to win in this league, it is really hard,” McLaurin said. “We’ve been in a lot of games this year, but we haven’t quite finished. … We have a short week coming up and we want to hopefully use some of that momentum when going into Dallas on a very tough game on Thanksgiving. Any time you can win, you appreciate it.”
There was still plenty to pick apart in Washington’s performance. The team was fortunate to be down only 9-7 at halftime given the way Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow carved up Washington’s secondary. And Washington’s comeback only came after Burrow was lost for the game — and possibly the season — to a knee injury. Quarterback Alex Smith wasn’t nearly as effective as his last two performances, and Dustin Hopkins missed another kick.
But the win appeared to do a lot to improve Washington’s morale. Players were loose after the game. Chase Young talked about NBA star LeBron James potentially watching the team on Thanksgiving, while wideout Steven Sims showed up to his press conference wearing a Cincinnati Reds hat.
Asked why, Sims laughed and said he didn’t even realize the connection. “It’s just swag,” said Sims, who caught Washington’s go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. “It’s a red hat.”
Washington again played better in the second half. Last week in Detroit, the team erased a 21-point deficit only to lose on a 59-yard field goal as time expired.
Washington also had a chance late to beat the Giants until Smith threw two loss-sealing interceptions on back-to-back drives.
“The guys have played well enough to win the last three, three of the last four, whatever it was,” coach Ron Rivera said. “We just hadn’t done it. … I was just really pleased with the ways the guys played.”
The networks skipped Washington for prime-time slots this season, but Thursday’s 4:30 p.m. start is likely to attract huge ratings. When the two teams met in 2016, the game set a Thanksgiving Day record for Fox with 35 million viewers.
After the Cowboys, the team’s schedule gets significantly tougher. The undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers (11-0) are up, then there is a trip to San Francisco (4-6, but made the Super Bowl last year) and then a home game against the Seattle Seahawks (7-3).
Defensive end Ryan Kerrigan said he is going to tell his teammates that it’s vital for them to focus on recovering from Sunday’s game. With the short week, Washington will likely to stick to a lighter practice schedule, and Kerrigan said players must put in the work to get their bodies right.
Kerrigan addressed reporters for the first time Sunday since he was rumored to have requested a trade ahead of last month’s deadline. Kerrigan declined to confirm that he did make a trade demand, only to say he wanted to focus on what’s ahead.
Kerrigan’s playing time has significantly increased since the deadline, logging almost 40% of the defensive snaps over the last two games (not counting Sunday’s win over the Bengals).
“It was a weird couple of weeks … but I’m glad I’m here,” Kerrigan said. “I’m glad I’m able to contribute to this team still, especially because we’re still in it in the NFC East. As weird as that is to say at 3-7, we’re very much still in it.
“Hopefully we can make it happen down the stretch here.”