- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Back in May, when the NFL schedule came out, Ron Rivera was already embracing for what he called a “round-robin tournament.” It wasn’t hard to see why. The Washington coach saw his team would close the season with five straight divisional games — a stretch that could very well determine the NFC East. 

“Once we get around to it,” Rivera told the team’s website, “it’s going to be all about, Where’s the standings?’”

That stretch is finally here and the standings are clear: Washington is right in the thick of it.

Yes, the Dallas Cowboys (8-4) hold a two-game lead in the division heading into Sunday’s game at FedEx Field. But this weekend marks a crucial chance for Washington (6-6) to gain ground in the race when the team hosts Dallas. With this the first of two matchups, Washington still has an opportunity to surpass its chief rival.

And that’s all Rivera and Co. could ask for following their poor start to the year.

“We’re at the part where we control it,” Rivera said. “For us, what’s gonna happen to the Washington Football Team is now in our hands. We go out and play the way we’re capable of. We give ourselves a chance and that’s where we wanted to be. That’s one of the things we talked about when the schedule first came out because you can get to this point and you have a chance. 

“You have an opportunity now, you’ve gotta make the best of it.”

Washington’s players and coaches understand how a division can swing by taking care of business against division rivals. Despite finishing 7-9, the Burgundy and Gold won the NFC East thanks to a 4-2 record against the Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. Washington, in particular, swept Dallas and Philadelphia.

But make no mistake, Washington faces a steep challenge ahead — even as it has rattled off four straight wins. The Cowboys remain a heavy favorite to win the NFC East, with oddsmakers listing them at -700 to do so. For context, someone would have to bet $700 to win $100 on the Cowboys winning the division.

It’s not just gamblers that see the Cowboys as sure bet, either. Five Thirty-Eight’s advanced statistical model pegs the Cowboys’ probability to win the division at 79%. Not only does Dallas have more wins than Washington, the Cowboys are sporting a top-10 offense (seventh) and defense (fourth) in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metrics, which measure efficiency.

Last season, Washington beat Dallas without having to face quarterback Dak Prescott. That won’t be the case this season as Prescott is now healthy.

And yet, the Cowboys have been uneven over the last few weeks, while Washington has surged. One of the biggest improvements for the Burgundy and Gold has come on defense — where the unit has allowed just 17.5 points per game during their win streak. The team has been much better at getting off the field on third down, holding teams to a 30.8% conversion rate.

“I don’t think we were ever out (of it),” Washington defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis said. “Obviously it looked grim on the schedule, but ultimately everyone in that building believes in everyone in that building. So, coming off the bye week, we did recoup, we did come out and I think we’re in the midst of forming an identity.”

Even if Washington manages to beat the Cowboys, who are 4-point favorites, the final four games will go a long way in determining the playoff race. The Eagles, Washington’s opponent after Dallas, are just outside of a wild card spot with a 6-7 record. If Washington slips, the team could tumble down the standings — and out of the postseason — as a bunch of NFC teams are hovering around .500.

Only the Giants — Washington’s last game of the year — are all but out of the division race at 4-8. New York is without starting quarterback Daniel Jones (neck), backup Mike Glennon (concussion) and the offense, as a whole, hasn’t come together. 

Washington, however, barely squeaked by the Giants with a last-second field goal in Week 2. And the Giants beat Washington twice in 2020.

Not much can be taken for granted.

“It’s really about to get serious — five divisional games to end the season — and we understand that,” Washington defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “We put ourselves in a great position to where we want to be. So now we have to capitalize, we have to get healthy and we have to get back to the grind because it’s going to be a grind.”

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

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