Commanders Corner: Surging Commanders stay in contention by avoiding a letdown

Conventional wisdom said that after upsetting an unbeaten division rival on Monday Night Football, the Burgundy & Gold would come back to earth and play a less than inspired game at AFC South cellar-dwelling Houston.

It’s tough to go from Joe Buck and Troy Aikman announcing your game to Chris Myers and Robert Smith without a little bit of a letdown, right? Former coach Jim Zorn’s teams were notorious for playing right to the level of their opponent, good or bad. And let’s be honest: opening with a three-and-out was less than encouraging.

But then Kendall Fuller intercepted a Davis Mills pass and returned the pick 37 yards for a touchdown, prompting the “Comma Commanders” song much earlier than expected.

Washington Commanders cornerback Kendall Fuller (29) scores a touchdown after an interception against the Houston Texans during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

That interception set the tone for an afternoon where Washington more than doubled the Texans’ yardage and handled business with a 23-10 thumping that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.

Instead of slipping under .500, they have a winning record for after 11 games for the first time since 2018, stand a half game out of a playoff berth and control their path to the postseason. They won’t slip to sub-. 500 Atlanta at home this week … will they?

Taylor made: Heinicke completed 15 of 27 passes for 191 yards, and while he didn’t necessarily put up game-winning numbers, the quarterback didn’t get sacked and played well with an early lead against a team that wasn’t moving the ball at all. The closest he came to disaster was a fourth-quarter fumble that he recovered to keep a field goal drive alive.

Running on Full: The ground game delivered against the league’s worst run defense as Antonio Gibson (18 carries for 72 yards) and Brian Robinson (15-57) combined for 129 yards. They also got their lone offensive touchdown from Curtis Samuel on the ground.

Pass Catch Fever: Logan Thomas led the team with five catches for 65 yards (his season high), while Terry McLaurin made four receptions for 55 yards and is now on pace to pass the 1,000-yard barrier in Week 15. Meanwhile, rookie Jahan Dotson recorded a catch for the second straight week after missing a month with a hamstring injury. Can he return to his early form (four TDs on 12 catches in weeks 1-4)?

Third and needs a little work: The offense moved the chains on only three of 13 attempts, with Heinicke completing two of nine passes for one conversion. Brian Robinson recorded one first down on his two runs while Antonio Gibson also went 1-2 running the ball (for the record, one of those runs came on 3rd and 19). The top option: Terry McLaurin’s one catch on two targets moved the chains. Yardage breakdown: 2-4 on short-yardage, 0-3 when needing four to six yards, and 2-6 on long-yardage.

Case for the defense: Talk about a dominant day. The D held Houston to 148 total yards, off the scoreboard for the first half and out of the end zone until the fourth quarter. Kamren Curl made seven tackles, three of which came on third downs and forced punts in the first half. The pass rush made four of their five sacks on third down (Jonathan Allen and Montez Sweat each notching a pair). The run defense limited the Texans to 21 yards on 16 carries. And, of course, Fuller’s interception gave Washington the lead for good just minutes into the game.

Special Situations: Joey Slye made both of his extra point attempts and kicked field goals of 24, 25 and 44 yards while all five of his kickoffs were for touchbacks. Tress Way averaged 44.2 yards on five punts. Dax Milne had four punt returns for 22 yards with a long of 16, while Antonio Gibson had kickoff returns of 21 and 27 yards. The Texans had no kickoff returns and the Commanders allowed punt returns of five and nine yards.

Flying flags: Six penalties were called on the Commanders, with five accepted, for a total of 36 yards. Four infractions were on special teams: a false start, hold, delay of game and running into the kicker (declined). One was on offense (holding on Tre Turner) and another was on defense (unnecessary roughness on John Ridgeway). After 11 games, offensive and special teams holds have the lead (12 flags), with false starts and defensive pass interference close behind (11 apiece). Sunday’s most costly flag? The unnecessary roughness call gave the Texans a first and goal, but one they couldn’t take advantage of.

Digesting the division: Philadelphia’s come-from-behind win at Indianapolis keeps the Eagles (9-1) atop the NFC East and in the No. 1 seed. Dallas (7-3) moves past the New York Giants (7-3) into second place and the No. 5 seed, as they own the head-to-head tiebreaker. Washington (6-5) is in eighth place in the NFC, just a half-game behind Seattle for the final wild card spot.

Comparing the quartets: The NFC East (29-12) has the best composite record of the eight divisions, followed by the AFC East (26-14). The AFC South (14-24-2) is at the bottom of the league — fittingly enough, as they’re 1-9 against the NFC East this fall. Washington’s win over Houston gives the NFC a 23-22 edge in the conference contest.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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