LANDOVER — By the time Ron Rivera made his way to his postgame press conference, the Washington coach was much more subdued. But minutes before, fresh off a captivating 17-15 win over the Seattle Seahawks, Rivera stormed off the field in celebration — yelling “Let’s go!’ to the fans cheering from the stands. In the locker room, Rivera’s fireworks continued. He told his team that everyone in the room was exactly who they needed to win games.
And they sure have won lately.
“I don’t [care] how they stack it against us,” Rivera said in a video posted to the team’s social media feeds. “We’re whipping (teams).”
Can you blame him for being fired up? Rivera’s team has now won three straight — and more importantly, the Burgundy and Gold (5-6) would be in the playoffs if the season ended today as the NFC’s seventh seed. There’s still a lot of football left, of course, but Washington is now in a much better position to control its own path. Starting next week, the team faces the Las Vegas Raiders and then closes the season with five straight division games.
In the process of this turnaround, Washington has started to resemble the team that Rivera thought they could be when the season began. No longer is Washington committing the types of inexcusable errors that led to a 2-6 start. Rather, the Burgundy and Gold have outright bullied teams over its win streak — notably controlling the time of possession and forcing teams off the field with an imposing defense.
Monday was no exception. Even if the final score didn’t reflect that.
Against Seattle, Washington held the ball for 41:40 to Seattle’s 18:20. The defense held the Seahawks to just 267 yards.
“It really wasn’t going to happen overnight,” Rivera said of his team’s surge. “I think we’re coming together and being the type of team we envisioned. If we continue to work and play the way we’ve played, we give ourselves a chance. That’s all we need — a chance.”
There are reasons to be skeptical that Washington can maintain its success. The 3-8 Seahawks, for instance, are far removed from being an annual contender and their offense ranked as one of the worst in the league coming into the matchup. Washington’s two-point margin of victory might not have been the most convincing, especially as Seattle stormed back in a final two-minute drive — only to fall short on the two-point conversion attempt. Who knows, too, if Washington can continue to control the clock the way it has the past few weeks.
Still, Washington is responding to critical moments in a way that it failed to do so earlier in the season.
When Joey Slye went down with a hamstring injury just before halftime — getting hurt while running back on a blocked extra-point attempt that was returned for a score — the Burgundy and Gold were left without a kicker. The offense, however, didn’t fold. After running back J.D. McKissic scored the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter, Rivera sent out the offense for a two-point attempt rather than let punter Tress Way try a field goal. Rivera’s decision was rewarded as running back Antonio Gibson punched in a run to give Washington a 17-9 lead.
That eight-point differential proved to matter. Despite Washington’s defense forcing four straight three-and-outs to begin the second half, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson made a late push when he connected with wide receiver Freddie Swain on a 32-yard bomb with 15 seconds left.
Even there, Washington handled the adversity well. On Seattle’s two-point try, Washington cornerback Kendall Fuller read the quarterback’s eyes and picked off Wilson. The team’s lead stayed intact.
“You don’t reward a fish for swimming,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “We’re supposed to win football games. … We haven’t arrived yet.”
Amid Washington’s win streak, the team has gotten some breaks. In Week 12, a number of NFC teams — Philadelphia, Minnesota, New Orleans — that Washington needed to lose did just that. The way the standings unfolded left three teams in the NFC tied at 5-6 — setting up Washington to jump them with a win because of tiebreakers.
That said, it was on Washington to take advantage of the situation. And it did on a night that typically torments the franchise. Before Seattle, Washington was just 2-17 on “Monday Night Football” at FedEx Field.
Rivera couldn’t hide his excitement. Even in his press conference, a small smile crept across the coach’s face when asked if he paid attention to the standings Sunday when Washington didn’t have to play. “Oh yeah,” he said.
At their core, Washington players still needed to believe they had something to play for. And to get his team to stick together, Rivera broke out the age-old “David vs. Goliath” metaphor. After the team’s upset win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers earlier this month — the win that kickstarted the team’s streak — Rivera went as far as to throw a stone in the locker room following the win.
On Monday, he continued that tradition — having quarterback Taylor Heinicke (223 yards) chuck the rock against a whiteboard.
“We’ve had some ups and downs this season,” wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. “We’ve leaned on each other to right the ship. … The David vs. Goliath story was where we were at, but I think we’re going to continue to get better and see where we can go from there.”