- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 3, 2021

PHILADELPHIA — The win was anything but normal because after all that had transpired in 2020, why would it be? There was the name change. The workplace misconduct investigation. The cancer battle. The multiple quarterback changes.

Washington was tested repeatedly through coach Ron Rivera’s first season and all the way to Week 17, when the team needed to win to clinch the NFC East.

But when Philadelphia Eagles backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld entered Washington’s 20-14 win in the fourth quarter of a one-score game — replacing a perfectly healthy and effective Jalen Hurts — well, that gave Washington a fortunate break that could hardly have been predicted.

Sudfeld’s entrance helped Washington clinch its first division title since 2015.

Sudfeld, a former Washington draft pick who is now the third-string signal-caller for Philadelphia, went just five of 12 and committed two turnovers as Washington controlled the clock down the stretch to cling onto their lead.



Washington (7-9) will now move on to face Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Saturday in a primetime showdown (8:15 p.m.) at FedEx Field.

Washington’s victory came despite an unimpressive performance from quarterback Alex Smith, who threw for 162 yards on 22 and 32 passing in his first game back since a calf injury derailed him for two games. Smith threw two interceptions, including one that gave the Eagles the ball right at Washington’s 15-yard line.

Down 17-14, the Eagles took over in great field position — but couldn’t score. Washington’s defense came up with a tremendous four-down stand, forcing a Hurts incompletion for the turnover on downs. Eagles coach Doug Pederson made a controversial decision to go for it on fourth down rather than kick a game-tying field goal.

The Eagles, though, had little to play for. Philadelphia was already eliminated from the playoffs the week before — and it was clear the Eagles were taking a cautious approach to the game.

Philadelphia, after all, was without 10 starters as stars like defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and running back Miles Sanders. Philadelphia also made quarterback Carson Wentz and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery healthy scratches.

But Pederson’s most controversial move was benching Hurts in the fourth, following the failed attempt on fourth down. According to the NBC broadcast, the switch was pre-planned as the Eagles wanted to evaluate Sudfeld.

At the time of the change, Hurts was just 7 of 20 for 72 yards, but had eight carries for 34 yards and two rushing touchdowns. 

Washington needed to win in order to make the playoffs. A Washington loss would have given the New York Giants (6-10) the division.

In order to take care of business, Washington wanted to do something it hadn’t all year: Start fast. After 15 games without a score on the opening drive, the team finally sustained a lengthy first possession that ended with a touchdown. In 15 plays, Washington converted four times on third down and drove 91 yards down the field as Smith capped off the possession with a 5-yard strike to wideout Terry McLaurin.

The team wasn’t done, either. Following McLaurin’s touchdown, the defense capitalized on the very next series with an interception by rookie Kam Curl. The turnover started at the line of scrimmage, where the seventh-rounder jammed tight end Zach Ertz to prevent the play from fully developing. Hurts, anticipating Ertz on a slant route, threw right to Curl instead.

Washington settled for a 42-yarder from Dustin Hopkins to take a 10-0 lead.

But if there were hopes that Philadelphia would roll over, they were mistaken.

Over the next few possessions, Hurts made life uncomfortable for Washington — extending plays with his legs to punish defenders. The team didn’t help matters by committing two third-down penalties to keep Philadelphia on the field.

Philadelphia first got on the board when Hurts rushed for a 6-yard touchdown. All year, Washington had struggled against mobile quarterbacks — failing to contain Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson. Hurts, who took over for Wentz in Week 13, was the latest example.

Hurts scrambled in for another touchdown to take a 14-10 lead with 3:54 left in the half. The 22-year-old got the Eagles into scoring position thanks to a perfect 30-yard strike to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside on third down.

During this stretch, Washington’s offense had gone cold. Smith’s mobility looked severely limited, perhaps due to the calf injury. The 36-year-old resorted to mostly check downs to the flat and struggled to handle the Eagles’ pressure. Between series, Washington warmed up both Smith and backup Taylor Heinicke just in case Rivera needed to make a change.

Smith, though, eased concerns with a two-minute drill just before halftime that gave Washington the lead again. Smith completed six of his nine passes — no more decisive than a 13-yard dime to Logan Thomas for the go-ahead touchdown. Smith’s pass was perfectly placed, high enough for the 6-foot-4 Thomas to soar up and grab it.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide