Welcome to the Breakdown, where we go in-depth on everything you need to know about the Washington Football Team. After the team’s big win over the San Francisco 49ers, we cover Ron Rivera’s historical success in December, the defense establishing an identity, how the scouting department helped find important pieces and more.

Ron Rivera is one of the best coaches in NFL history at rallying teams in December. Former assistants and players have often noted how Rivera’s teams always finish strong in the last month of the season, and this year has provided good anecdotal evidence with wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers. But after hearing the claim so much, we gave quantifying it a try.

We started with a list of coaches who have coached at least one game since 1970 (281) and narrowed it to those who had coached in at least 16 games in December (132) — because a full season’s worth of games seemed like a fair sample of a coach’s performance. We sorted the list by December winning percentage, and while Rivera was almost in the top 10 percent, the results didn’t seem to say much. The list was topped by coaches who were successful every month, such as Bill Walsh, John Madden and Bill Belichick.

So we went one step further. To isolate the data, we compared each coach’s career winning percentage to his December winning percentage. Rivera ranked seventh, with a winning percentage 12.7 points higher in December than over the rest of the season.

“Growth,” Rivera said, explaining his success in December. “I think because our players get more and more experience and learn more and more. Each season is different. Each season has its own personality.”

Career WP
Change in December (%)
Dan Quinn
Leslie Frazier
Jim Fassel
Jack Pardee
Mike Sherman
Kyle Shanahan
Ron Rivera
Bill Walsh
Walt Michaels
Wayne Fontes

Washington’s two most notable injured players, quarterback Alex Smith (right calf strain) and running back Antonio Gibson (turf toe), remain uncertain for Sunday against Seattle. Smith underwent treatment Monday morning, though Rivera expressed confidence in backup Dwayne Haskins if he needs to play in Smith’s place. Gibson’s status remains unclear, in part because turf toe is a tricky injury and the severity is unknown.

The defense is establishing a reputation for being physical. Washington pounds opponents play after play, shown Sunday by safety Kam Curl shucking a blocking tight end, defensive linemen Daron Payne and Chase Young forcing fumbles and linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis running through 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk on his way to a sack. Those are just a few examples of a style seen in ways big and small all over the field.

This fits into the vision Rivera laid out when he was hired. The Carolina Panthers teams he coached were known for their toughness, and he has praised this defense’s progress in that area. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio recently pointed out it all starts by acquiring players who like to hit, as the team did with Curl and Pierre-Louis in the offseason.

The toughness seems infectious. NFL analyst Brian Baldinger said of the team’s physicality: “It’s not one guy. It’s not two guys. It’s the whole damn team!”

Washington is now a strong favorite to win the NFC East. Several advanced statistical models, including those run by FiveThirtyEight and Football Outsiders, give Washington a roughly 70 percent chance of claiming the division title. This reflects the team’s recent surge as well as its remaining schedule, which is one of the league’s easiest by opponent winning percentage (.449). The New York Giants have the league’s 10th-most-difficult remaining schedule (.541).

While the division looks like a two-team race, the Philadelphia Eagles are still lurking. They benched Carson Wentz in favor of rookie Jalen Hurts last week and upset the New Orleans Saints. If they beat the Arizona Cardinals on the road Sunday, and Washington loses to Seattle, the Eagles would be a half-game out of first. It’s still possible the division could come down to Washington at Philadelphia in Week 17.

Washington (6-7)
New York (5-8)
Philadelphia (4-8-1)
vs. Seattle (9-4)
vs. Cleveland (9-4)
at Arizona (7-6)
vs. Carolina (4-9)
at Baltimore (8-5)
vs. Dallas (4-9)
at Philadelphia (4-8-1)
vs. Dallas (4-9)
vs. Washington (6-7)

The emergence of some role players reflects the success of the scouting department this offseason. This includes the pro side (running back J.D. McKissic and left tackle Cornelius Lucas) as well as the collegiate (Curl and wide receiver Isaiah Wright). Curl was a seventh-round pick, and one of the main reasons Wright signed with Washington as an undrafted free agent is because he thought Peter Picerelli, a scout, did a good job explaining what role he would play.

Del Rio wants more from his defense. While discussing the defense’s recent progress Sunday, Rivera pointed out “there’s some issues that Jack is not happy with, but Jack’s expecting an awful lot from those guys, as we all are.” There are several examples of how Del Rio has already helped the unit, and one of the best is the progress of his two young edge rushers, Chase Young and Montez Sweat, who have emerged as a force against opposing offenses.

Terry McLaurin crossed the 1,000-yard receiving threshold Sunday without much fanfare. He has had his worst statistical performances of the year by far in the past two weeks — four catches, 38 yards total — in part because defenses have keyed on him. McLaurin has said he cares more about wins than stats, but Rivera made it a point to mention his milestone Monday. He said McLaurin reaching the milestone in 13 games while battling an ankle injury was “really extraordinary.”

“That’s impressive to me,” Rivera said. “That was really cool. I’m really proud of who he’s becoming.”

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