CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Washington coach Ron Rivera could only watch from the sideline as quarterback Taylor Heinicke shuffled his feet with a defender flying in and another leaping to make the tackle. No one would have blamed him if he‘d turned his head to look away.
But if he had, he would have missed it: Despite the pressure, Heinicke found rookie tight end John Bates just in time to pick up the first down on fourth and 3.
“Yeah, that scared the (heck) out of me,” Rivera said, “but that’s him.”
Rivera credited Heinicke’s “innate sense” — an ability to see plays others can’t — for the fourth-down conversion that help set up Washington’s go-ahead, fourth-quarter field goal in Sunday’s 27-21 win over the Carolina Panthers.
This weekend was sold as a homecoming for Rivera, the former Panthers coach who, in a special twist, got to face quarterback Cam Newton. But Washington’s latest win proved to be about much more than a Rivera-Newton showdown. Rather, the victory was an indication that this season might not be lost just yet for the Burgundy and Gold.
Don’t look now, but Washington is 4-6 — and the teams (Minnesota and New Orleans) that hold the last two wild-card spots in the NFC are 5-5.
After Washington’s second straight victory, Rivera and players said they’ve started to see similarities to last year — when the team rode a four-game win streak in the last half of the season all the way to the playoffs.
The start of that four-game win streak, by the way? Week 11. And for those not closely following the NFL calendar, Sunday’s win over the Panthers happened in — Week 11.
“I feel like it’s very similar,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “I’m not a fan of comparing seasons because so much can change between them, but two wins in a row is huge. You can go as far as to say it saved our season, as far as we know.”
Make no mistake, beating Carolina did not come easy for Washington.
Newton, in his first start for the Panthers since rejoining the franchise last week, made all sorts of plays that electrified the crowd — including the 24-yard rushing touchdown in the second quarter that led to the quarterback dancing in celebration at the midfield logo.
Star Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey totaled more than 100 yards (59 rushing, 60 receiving) from the line of scrimmage.
And down six with 1:50 left, Newton got the chance to lead the Panthers on a potential game-winning drive — even crossing into Washington territory.
But Rivera said his Washington players are starting to “become resilient.”
Players have stopped trying to make the splash plays and instead rely on each other as a unit, he said.
He cited Carolina’s final fourth and 3, when defensive tackle Daron Payne and defensive end James Smith-Williams sacked Newton. The pass rushers filled their lanes and the secondary stuck to their assignments — forcing Newton to hold the ball and leading to the game-sealing sack.
Washington has been resilient in other ways during the win streak.
Running back Antonio Gibson was benched for a long stretch in the first half after fumbling inside the 10-yard line — his third turnover of the season. But he got another opportunity in the second half, ran hard and secured the ball — finishing with 95 yards on 19 carries. Gibson’s contribution was key to a dominant day for the Washington ground game (190 yards on 40 carries).
Rivera said Washington’s improvement can be traced back to the physicality up front on both sides of the ball.
The offensive and defensive lines have taken control in each of the last two games, even as they’ve suffered injuries. On Sunday, the defense was without edge rushers Chase Young (ACL) and Montez Sweat (jaw), while the offense saw center Tyler Larsen (knee) and right tackle Sam Cosmi (hip) go down. They did not return.
The physicality has helped the Burgundy and Gold form an identity, players said. And the team is executing plays in a way they hadn’t earlier in the season. That sharpness can especially be seen in Heinicke — who completed 72.2% of his passes for 206 yards and three touchdowns.
Dating back to last week’s win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Heinicke has thrown only 12 incompletions. He is 42 of 54 in that span.
“The more you play, the more comfortable you get out there,” Heinicke said.
“He’s starting to see things,” Rivera said.
Washington now will get some time to rest before hosting the Seattle Seahawks on “Monday Night Football” on Nov. 29.
As he did last week, Rivera gave his team the next day off as part of “Victory Monday.” The true test for Washington will be whether these players can put together the kind of late-season rally, like last year’s, that can take them to the playoffs.
In the meantime, players and coaches will enjoy Sunday’s emotional win. Rivera tried to downplay his return to Bank of America Stadium, but players said they knew the game meant a lot to him. In the locker room afterward, Allen presented Rivera with a game-ball — usually handed out to players.
“I felt good,” Rivera said. “I did. It was fun.”