This Monday morning, Ron Rivera felt different. He had walked into his team’s facility for the past three postgame film sessions simmering, not looking forward to reviewing losses that could have been wins. But now the Washington Football Team had beaten the Cincinnati Bengals, shown improvement and moved within a half-game of first place in the NFC East.

The team isn’t where Rivera needs it to be — “not even close,” the coach said — but coming into the office “didn’t feel as bad as it had in the past.”

“Losing, it sucks, to be honest,” Rivera said. “Sometimes, it’s just miserable. But … thinking about the progress we’re making, the development that’s happening, the growth that you see …” He paused. “I’m optimistic about the direction that we’re headed.”

The emotional lift came just as the NFC East race opened wide. Philadelphia tops the disastrous division at 3-6-1, while the other three squads sit bunched right below at 3-7. Washington’s odds are still long — Football Outsiders and FiveThirtyEight give it the worst chance of the division’s four teams of winning the title — but this is a surreal, improbable season. Washington can seize the division lead, at least for a few days, with a win at the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving.

The continued push for the division is controversial. Some fans and experts believe it would be better for the team’s long-term outlook to finish with a poor record to get a better draft pick — a front-office-focused approach popularized over the past decade by baseball’s Houston Astros and basketball’s Philadelphia 76ers. Those people believe wins now are empty calories. Washington needs a franchise quarterback to have any hope in the future, and each victory worsens its chances of drafting the right one.

Rivera gives that argument little credence. He believes participating in the division race serves a larger purpose, that it allows this young roster the chance to learn how to win. He believes instilling a winning mind-set will help build the sustainable culture he preached about all offseason. In the long term, the thinking goes, culture is a better bedrock for a rebuild than a hypothetical prospect.

The risk in that approach is apparent — the number of teams with three or four wins means one victory could push Washington from the fifth pick, its current position, to the low teens — but there is precedent. Last year, in the first year of a rebuild, the Miami Dolphins won five of their last nine games and still drafted their franchise quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa. Now they sit one game out of the AFC’s final playoff spot.

Optimism from players, as well as Rivera, is fueled by the NFC East’s hot mess. The first-place Philadelphia Eagles are still the betting favorite, but they are reeling. Their flaws — turnovers, sacks, a poor third-down conversion rate — seem systemic, and Carson Wentz’s regression to one of the league’s worst quarterbacks typifies the team’s struggles. Coach Doug Pederson dismissed the idea that Philadelphia could go to rookie backup Jalen Hurts, saying a switch would “send the wrong message to the football team that the season’s over.”

Dallas is staggering back. Andy Dalton, who took over for Dak Prescott after his season-ending ankle injury, returned from a concussion he suffered in a Week 7 loss at Washington and a bout with the coronavirus to beat the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. He oversees an offense loaded with weapons, and the Cowboys’ defense has improved from one of the league’s worst in recent memory to just below average.

“We are right there to go win the division,” star running back Ezekiel Elliott told reporters.

The New York Giants are surging. They have three wins in their past five games, and Football Outsiders pegged them as the new favorite. The defense and quarterback Daniel Jones have improved, though the team still needs to prove it can beat someone outside the division. It will have a good chance to do so Sunday against the Joe Burrow-less Bengals.

Most models predict it will take six wins to capture the NFC East crown. Quarterback Alex Smith believes in Rivera’s vision.

“We understand what the division is this year,” he said diplomatically. “But for us, [we’re] not getting caught up in all that. We really need to live week-to-week. That’s it.”

Washington must navigate a short week with a young team and overcome history. Dallas has the best winning percentage on Thanksgiving among teams that have played 10 or more games (.606), and it’s 8-1 against Washington.

But Washington has a plan. On Monday, the players lifted, jogged, held a walk-through, underwent treatment for injuries and conducted virtual meetings as it remains in the NFL’s intensive coronavirus protocols. On Tuesday, Rivera said, it will practice at a faster pace without pads and cram in as much of the game plan as possible. On Wednesday, it will fly to Dallas, and on Thursday, the game will kick off at 4:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, the team will lean on its few veterans, including Smith and Ryan Kerrigan. The defensive end said he advised the young players to start their usual Monday recovery Sunday night. They need to compress their week into hours to get their bodies ready.

“You’re going to wake up Thursday and be like, ‘Wow, we’re doing this again right now,’ ” Kerrigan said. “So the better you can make yourself feel physically, the better chance you’re going to have to succeed.”

Later, Kerrigan added: “As weird as that is to say, at 3-7, we’re very much still in it. Hopefully we can make it happen down the stretch here.”

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