Commanders Corner: Monday Night Mayhem keeps Washington in playoff mix

For NFL pretenders, the season is a slippery slope: One or two losses can compound itself like credit card debt, and a team that once had playoff hopes can quickly find itself staring at a double-digit defeat season.

Washington has fought its way back from the brink (1-4 with four straight losses and 35 total points over a three-game stretch) and while one could write of wins over sub-. 500 squads like Chicago, Green Bay and Indianapolis, the 32-21 win over Philadelphia keeps this team in the playoff mix (at least, through Thanksgiving).

And what a victory it was, topping the league’s last unbeaten on Monday Night Football. Scoring drives of 7:21, 6:30, 7:04, and 8:23. All told, they had the ball for over 40 minutes.

The defense made plays (four takeaways) and the offense despite a few hiccups made plays when it mattered. And so after 10 games, the Burgundy and Gold are in contention.

Taylor Made: Quarterback Taylor Heinicke completed 17 of 29 passes for 211 yards with an interception plus a fumble that set up the Eagles’ first touchdown while getting sacked three times. He also ran five times for 10 yards. But his two biggest plays don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet: in the first half, he recovered a high snap and threw an incompletion to avoid a monster sack and keep a touchdown drive alive, while in the fourth quarter, he took a knee and sold a roughing-the-passer penalty that helped the offense melt another minute off of the clock. He’s now 3-1 as a starter, and his passer rating is similar (82.1) to Carson Wentz (82.7) while getting sacked a ton less (nine in four games, as opposed to Wentz getting dropped 23 times over six starts).

Running for Time: At first glance, the numbers of Brian Robinson and Antonio Gibson (132 yards on 40 carries) don’t look great, but then one realizes they were given the ball six times on third down and moved the chains five times. They each ran for a touchdown in the win and not only gained the tough yards, but those gains kept Philadelphia off the field.

Pass Catch Fever: Terry McLaurin shined with eight catches for 128 yards, or roughly half of the team’s passing offense. It’s nice to see Taylor and Terry on the same page: McLaurin is averaging six catches on nine targets for 92.5 yards over the last four games after posting 3.7 receptions on 6.2 throws for 61.2 yards the previous six.

Third and Awesome: Washington converted 12-21 third downs with a few caveats thrown in there. Technically, the field goal made at the end of the first half counts as a miss, as does the clock-killing knee taken after the two-minute warning in the second half. The run game got it done with seven conversions in eight attempts (Robinson was 3-4 while Gibson and Heinicke were each 2-2). Heinicke completed 7-10 passes with five conversions while tossing one interception and getting sacked once. His top option: McLaurin, who moved the chains four times on five catches in seven targets. Yardage breakdown: 8-11 on short-yardage, 3-4 when needing 4-6 yards and 1-4 on long-yardage (I’ve taken the made field goal and conceded knee out of the equation).

Defensive Takeaways: Entering the night, the Eagles had turned the ball over only three times, and the Washington defense turned the world upside down with an interception and three fumble recoveries that led to 16 of the team’s 32 points (another didn’t lead to points but helped them bleed 2:17 of the final 5:37 off of the clock). Jamin Davis led the D with nine tackles.

Special Situations: Tress Way punted just twice for an average of 43.5 yards, while Joey Slye stole the spotlight by making 4-4 field goals (32, 55, 58 yards) and both extra points. He also delivered four touchbacks on six kickoffs (one was returned from the two and the other from the goal line). Dax Milne had a 12-yard punt return while Antonio Gibson had one kickoff return for 14 yards. Kick coverage allowed a five yard punt return and a pair of 20-yard kickoff returns.

Flying Flags: Just five penalties for 58 yards. Three were on offense (delay of game, false start and pass interference — while an illegal man downfield penalty was declined), one was on defense (pass interference), and the other was on special teams (holding). Defensive pass interference takes the season lead with 11 whistles this fall and Benjamin St. Juste’s PI was his fifth flag of the season, tying him with Rachad Wildgoose for the team lead. That PI was the most costly penalty, placing the Eagles at the six-yard line (they’d score on the very next play).

Digesting the Division: Despite the defeat, Philadelphia (8-1) remains in first place, and due to their Week 2 win over Minnesota the Eagles, they keep the No. 1 seed in the NFC. The New York Giants (7-2) have almost doubled last year’s win total and are one victory away from clinching their first non-double digit loss season since 2016. They own the No. 5 seed because Dallas (6-3) lost to Green Bay (the Cowboys play Minnesota next). Washington (5-5) is in eighth place of the NFC, just one half game behind San Francisco for the third Wild Card.

Comparing the Quartets: The NFC East is not slowing down, with a composite 26-11 mark that’s two games better than the AFC East (24-13). The sad-sack NFC South (15-25) is just a little worse than the AFC South (14-22-2). The interconference competition is just over halfway complete, with the NFC owning a 21-20 lead over the AFC.

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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