Last week I mentioned the WFT was right where they wanted to be, citing previous runs of four (2007 & 2015), five (2005) and seven (2012) straight wins to finish the year and make the playoffs.
I did not see them beating previously unbeaten Pittsburgh 23-17, even though the Steelers were ripe for the upset. And I say “ripe for upset” after having watched them play uninspired against an undermanned Ravens team the week before, with not a lot of time to prepare.
But that doesn’t discount the fact that Head Coach Ron Rivera’s team stood toe to toe for 60 minutes with a playoff team and outplayed them down the stretch.
Washington has a somewhat lighter finishing schedule than the Giants (WFT’s final four foes are 20-27-1, NYG’s are 25-23) and while nobody is saying they’re going to be favored in each of their remaining games, they have no reason after the way they’ve played over the last month not to think they can beat these teams.
This week’s numbers:
Mr. Smith Survives a Gash: Alex Smith threw for 296 yards and a touchdown while not turning the ball over; more importantly he survived the gusher that was his left (non-broken) leg late in the first half. After getting stitched up he was as good as new to finish the game. Anytime a guy who has been through what Smith has experienced says, “Wow, that’s never happened to me,” you have to shake your head in wonder.
Gibson Gone: Antonio Gibson left the game early with a toe injury. While the running game didn’t do much (45 yards on 21 carries) without him, players like J.D. McKissick (10 catches for 70 yards) were able to take “long handoffs” to keep the offense in gear. A toe is a small body part with big ramifications, let’s see where the rookie stands next Sunday.
Take the L-Train: Logan Thomas had the best day of his career, notching nine catches for 98 yards and 23-yard touchdown that tied things up in the second half, especially on a day where Terry McLaurin (two catches for 14 yards) was limited. Cam Sims (five grabs for 92 yards) had arguably the two biggest catches of the day, a 31-yarder early in the second half on 3rd and 14 from the 14 that jumpstarted the first TD drive and a 29-yarder that set up the go-ahead field goal.
Third and Long and Short: The Burgundy & Gold went 4-17 on the money down and it was a tale of two halves. The offense was 0-8 at moving the chains before intermission, but that’s what happens when you need 9, 11, 9, 7, 13, 10, 7 and 16 yards to move the marker. The second half was much better (4-9) as the two biggest plays of the day arguably were those third down throws from Alex Smith to Cam Sims. Smith completed 8-14 passes with 3 conversions while getting sacked once. Peyton Barber moved the chains on a 3rd and 1 while he didn’t fumble on a 3rd and 12 right before the final field goal of the day. The top target — Logan Thomas had four catches on four passes thrown his way. Terry McLaurin was thrown to twice-both going incomplete. Yardage breakdown: 1-3 on short yardage, 2-3 on medium (4-6 yards needed) and 1-11 on long-yardage.
D earns an B: When you keep the Steelers out of the endzone in the second half, we forgive sloppy tackling in the secondary that led to the 50-yard TD pass from Roethlisberger to James Washington. The Burgundy and Gold notched four three, and outs kept Roethlisberger on his toes. While the pass rush didn’t notch a sack, they made life uncomfortable for Big Ben. Jon Bostic notched 10 tackles while securing the game-sealing interception off of a Montez Sweat tipped pass, one of three passes defended by the lineman.
Special Situations: Tress Way averaged 46 yards per punt while Dustin Hopkins drilled field goals of 45, 45 and 49 yards and converted all three of his extra points. Five of Hopkins’ seven kickoffs were touchbacks while one was an onside kick at the end of the first half to eat up clock. Danny Johnson had a 29-yard kickoff return while Steven Sims had a 9-yard punt return. The kickoff coverage team allowed a 38-yard return that almost resulted in a go-ahead score in the fourth quarter and the punt coverage team allowed a 17-yard return that put Pittsburgh at midfield for their final touchdown of the day.
Flying Flags: Washington was whistled 10 times with nine penalties accepted for 62 yards. Four on offense (two false starts, a hold, and an illegal use of the hands), three on defense (unnecessary roughness, holding, and a pass interference) with two on special teams (illegal black above the waist and a hold). Morgan Moses (illegal use, false start) was flagged twice, giving him four infractions on the season (still three behind Montez Sweat). After 12 games false starts (9) and holds (6) are the two biggest culprits. Worst penalty? A fourth quarter pass interference against Kendall Fuller that turned a 4th and 2 at the 39 into a 1st and 10 at the 25, setting up Pittsburgh’s 37-yard field goal that would be its final points of the day. What drives me nuts is those double-shots when the WFT gets whistled for a hold/illegal use of hands and then a false start in succession. The team survived both of those potential disasters.
Digesting the Division: The New York Giants won on the road this week, beating Seattle 17-12 to stay atop the NFC East at 5-7 (darn head to head tiebreaker). NY gets the No. 4 seed at this time; Washington at 5-7 is in 12th place of the conference and eerily just a game out of the final playoff spot (San Francisco owns the common opponents tiebreaker). Philadelphia (3-8-1) is in third place after a loss to Green Bay and 15th in the NFC, while 3-9 Dallas brings up the rear in the conference and division after losing 34-17 to the Ravens.
Pointing North: The AFC North (29-18-1) still has the best record of the divisions, but the stink of losing Monday afternoon takes a little bit of that luster away. Thank goodness for 9-3 Cleveland! Actually the Browns have secured their first winning record since 2007. The NFC West at 27-21 owns the second best record but two teams that a lot of people felt good about this fall (Seattle & San Francisco) are starting to take water. The NFC East at 16-31-1 is still bringing up the rear but now only needs to win three non-division games to avoid the worst mark in history. Baby steps.
Elimination Island: Joining Jacksonville and the New York Jets this week are Cincinnati (2-9-1) and the Los Angeles Chargers (3-9). One can only imagine where the Bengals would be if Joe Burrow hadn’t been hurt in the game at Washington.