Commanders Corner: One Giant step back

Washington had a chance if not to punch its playoff ticket Sunday night to at least put the team in prime position for the playoffs. (The Commanders haven’t been three games over .500 with three games remaining since 1999.) And the Commanders didn’t get it done.

The offense — despite outgaining the New York Giants by 99 yards — managed just three scores and a pair of fumbles by Taylor Heinicke proved to be the margin of victory in a 20-12 loss. The fourth-down incompletion to Curtis Samuel was a textbook case in mugging but wasn’t called pass interference and the rally came up short.

Now instead of owning the tiebreaker with their slumping division foes, the Commanders are in effect two games out of the No. 6 seed with a pair of teams nipping at their heels for the final playoff spot. They also have a major “rest deficit” with San Francisco on the horizon Saturday.

Taylor Made and Broken: Quarterback Taylor Heinicke completed 17 of 29 passes for 249 yards and a touchdown, while getting sacked three times and losing a pair of fumbles. As mentioned, those two turnovers proved to be the difference in the game. The offense also had another miserable showing on third down (more below) and one wonders if Heinicke starts slow against San Francisco will Carson Wentz be warming up in the bullpen.

Running to Moonlight: Brian Robinson rushed for 89 yards on 12 carries while Antonio Gibson had five carries for 21 yards. It’s a shame they didn’t have more attempts against a Giants defense that’s had issues on the ground all season. Robinson needs three monster games to reach 1,000 yards and probably won’t get there, but it’s nice to see the future is bright on the ground.

Pass Catch Fever: Jahan Dotson caught four passes for 105 yards and the team’s lone touchdown while his 61-yard reception put the team in scoring range during the fourth quarter. Curtis Samuel’s dual-threat role was more successful in the air (three catches for 44 yards) than on the ground (five carries for one yard). But Terry McLaurin, once again, is the engine that drives the passing game train, making six receptions for 70 yards to give him 1,015 for the third straight season. He’s the fourth player in team history (Art Monk, Gary Clark, Henry Ellard) to do such a thing.

Third and Awful: Washington moved the chains on 1 of 10 attempts with Heinicke completing 2 of 7 attempts for zero conversions. He did run for a first down on a 3rd and 1 but was sacked twice on the money down, fumbling once inside the Giants’ red zone. His top target? Two passes thrown to Samuel (for one catch). Samuel’s run on 3rd and 3 came up short of the marker. Yardage breakdown: 1 for 2 on short-yardage, 0 for 5 when needing four to six yards, 0 for 3 on long-yardage. And after converting 12 of 21 third downs in their win over Philadelphia, the offense has moved the chains on 11 of 39 attempts over the last four games.

Defense Never Rests: While the offense has fallen apart on the money down, the defense continues to earn high marks on third down (they currently rank fourth in the NFL at getting off of the field). Brian McCain led the team with 11 tackles, while Jamin Davis’ nine stops give him a team-high 87 for the season (four more than Kamren Curl’s 83 after making seven tackles). However, no sacks for a pass rush that had made their money this fall making quarterbacks uncomfortable. Another minus: the first game without a take-away since Week Five’s loss to Tennessee.

Special Situations: Tress Way averaged 44.3 punts over four punts with a long of 65, plus a pair inside the New York 20. Joey Slye made field goals of 41 and 51 yards while missing an extra point of 43 yards (we’ll get to that shortly) while three of his four kicks were touchbacks. Antonio Gibson had three returns of 22, 28 and 43 yards while Dax Milne’s lone punt return was four yards. Coverage allowed punt returns of nine and 23 yards, plus one kickoff return of 21 yards.

Flying Flags: Six penalties for 40 yards, with five of six happening on offense (and the sixth while on special teams occurring on a two-point conversion). The classic combination of delay-of-game and false start on consecutive snaps turned what was a 3rd and 12 into a 3rd and 22, forcing a first quarter field goal. Offensive/Special Teams Holding (17 flags) and False Starts (13) are the most common infractions after 14 games. Three flags loom large: Terry McLaurin’s “Illegal Formation” flag took a Brian Robinson touchdown off the board (despite the official telling McLaurin that he was even with the ball and not causing an illegal formation), Jahan Dotson’s offensive pass interference call on the two-point conversion not only taking two points off the board but also pushing the extra point attempt back from 33 yards to 43 (that would be missed), and the hold on Cornelius Lucas that turned a 1st and 10 from their 31 to a 2nd and 18 at the 10 (Giants would score on a sack & fumble recovery on the next play).

Digesting the Division: Philadelphia (13-1) needs only a tie against Dallas Saturday to wrap up the NFC East after their win over Chicago, while the Cowboys (10-4) lost on a pick-six in overtime to Jacksonville but wraps up a playoff berth due to losses by other clubs and hangs on to the No. 5 seed. The New York Giants (8-5-1) own third place and the No. 6 seed plus the tiebreaker over Washington (7-6-1). The Commanders are a half-game ahead of Detroit and Seattle for the final playoff spot.

Division of Dominance: Even with the 2-2 week the NFC East at 38-16-2 is six games better than the AFC East (33-23 after tough losses by the Jets and Patriots) for the best of the bunch. Making strides as of late has been the AFC North (31-25 but 17-11 since the start of November) while the AFC South (18-36-2) remains the division of depression. Sunday’s wins by Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Cincinnati even up the inter-conference contest at 34-34 with 12 games over the next two weeks to decide AFC-NFC supremacy.

In & Out: San Francisco was the first team to wrap up a playoff berth last weekend, beating Seattle Thursday night to lock up the NFC West. Minnesota continued the playoff party Saturday afternoon with a record comeback against Indianapolis wrapping up the NFC North and Buffalo captured the AFC East that night with a last-second win over Miami. Dallas clinched a playoff berth thanks to losses by Seattle and Washington. Meanwhile, the elimination list that began with Houston and Chicago now includes Denver, Arizona and the Los Angeles Rams. Soft south divisions (Tennessee at 7-7 and Tampa Bay at 6-8) in both conferences keep a few extra teams in the mix than would normally be plotting for their draft order at this time.

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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