Commanders Corner: Washington enters December a contender

The NFL is a week-to-week league and it’s often razor-thin when deciding who wins and who loses.

A goal-line interception and a roughing the kicker penalty helped deliver a 19-13 victory for the Washington Commanders over Atlanta Sunday afternoon. With the result, the Commanders are 5-7 in one-possession games and currently holding down the third wild-card spot.

With six wins in seven games, we have another patented Ron Rivera rally. The Commanders won five straight in 2020 and four in a row last year to move into postseason position.

But after those respective surges, each team shrunk: the division winners of 2020 lost two of their last three games and benefited from a historically bad NFC East, while the 2021 edition finished the year 1-4 (thanks to a Giants team that was about to fire its coach).

This year’s team is 7-5 for the first time since 2008 (Jim Zorn would go 5-15 over the rest of his two-season tenure) and plays three of its final five games against division foes with another against NFC West-leading San Francisco.

Regardless of what happens, my 6-8-3 preseason projection certainly looks foolish now.

Washington Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke (4) hugs wide receiver Dyami Brown (2) after an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Landover, Md. The Commanders won 19-13. (AP Photo/Jess Rapfogel)

Taylor Made: Quarterback Taylor Heinicke completed 14 of 23 passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns while tossing an interception late in the first half (Atlanta had no time to benefit from the turnover). After six starts, he may have thrown for fewer yards and touchdowns than Carson Wentz while also posting a lower passer rating (82.7 to 84.1) but has been sacked just nine times to 23 for Wentz in the same number of starts. If they lost yesterday, one could make the case to swap QBs, but now the referendum moves to his and the team’s play against the Giants next Sunday.

Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson: Brian Robinson rushes for 105 yards (the first 100-yard game of his career) on 18 carries while catching a touchdown pass. He did this three months after being shot in the leg (an important body part for a running back). Antonio Gibson added 32 yards on nine tries plus three catches for 22 yards (all on third down) while Jonathan Williams ran four times for 22 yards. The Commanders’ road to the playoffs is on the ground, and while Robinson might not reach 1,000 yards as I predicted before the opener (I factored in the stay on the shelf), he’s the primary option for this rush offense.

Pass Catch Fever: Terry McLaurin made four receptions for 48 yards while tight end John Bates added three catches for 24 yards and a touchdown. Curtis Samuel was more of a threat on the ground (zero receptions but four carries for 13 yards) while Jahan Dotson was targeted once.

Third and Struggling: After moving the chains on 3 of 5 money downs in the first half, the Commanders were 2 of 7 after intermission, finishing the game 5 for 12. Heinicke completed 6 of 9 passes for four conversions, with McLaurin as his top option (two catches on four targets with two conversions). Washington ran three times with Robinson moving the chains once, Gibson running a draw play on 3rd & 18 that naturally came up short, and Samuel’s fourth-quarter run buying time but missing the first-down marker.

Yardage breakdown: 4 for 5 on short-yardage, 0 for 2 on 3rd & 4-6 yards needed, 1 for 5 on long-yardage.

Defense Dominates: Darrick Forrest led the team with 11 tackles while Jamin Davis adds 10 stops. They also held the Falcons to 1-4 on third down in the second half and 4-10 for the day. When it looked as if Atlanta was going to run the clock down before scoring, Daron Payne tipped a pass that was intercepted in the end zone by Kendall Fuller. The defense now ranks eighth in yards allowed and tenth in points given up.

Special Situations: Joey Slye made 1 of 2 extra points while kicking field goals of 30 and 45 yards. He also had four touchbacks with two kicks returned (one for 19 yards to the 21 and the other for 9 yards to the 24). Tress Way averaged 42.3 yards on his three punts, none of which were returned. Antonio Gibson had kickoff returns of 20 and 31 yards while Washington did not have any punt returns.

Flying Flags: Four penalties for 28 yards. Two on offense (holding, pass interference) and two on defense (face mask and offsides). The hold gives Washington 13 for the season and is their most common infraction (caveat-holding on a return counts toward the total). The most costly flag? Andrew Norwell’s hold turned what would have been a 3rd & 1 from the Falcons’ 36-yard line into a 2nd & 15 from the 50. Washington would wind up punting (of course Montez Sweat’s offsides would have been worse had Atlanta not thrown an interception and scored with under a minute left).

Digesting the Division: Philadelphia (10-1) remains in first place and owns the best record in the entire league. Second-place Dallas (8-3) has the No. 5 seed while the New York Giants (7-4) despite two straight losses are still in the playoff mix as the No. 6 seed. Washington (7-5) remains in last place of the East but moves into the No. 7 seed with Seattle’s loss to Las Vegas (first Seahawks home loss to the Raiders since 1988).

East is a Beast: Actually, both of them. The NFC East is 32-13, meaning they’re going to finish over .500 as a group even if they lose every out of division game for the rest of the regular season. Close behind is the AFC East at 29-15 and they also have four teams in their ranks owning winning records. The worst? Indianapolis’ loss drops the AFC South to 16-27-2 (.378), which is marginally worse than the NFC South’s 18-29 (.383). The interconference contest has the AFC owning a 28-25 lead over the NFC with the first conference reaching 40 wins taking bragging rights.

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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