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Washington football preview: Alex Smith is on track to start; Terry McLaurin will try to play

Washington quarterback Alex Smith is said to be feeling good leading up to Week 17's game against the Eagles. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Welcome to Week 17. This is the preview, where we go in depth on everything you need to know as the Washington Football Team plays the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field at 8:20 p.m. Sunday. We cover the myriad injuries for both teams, the game’s implications for the rest of the NFC East, the one thing that could determine Washington’s playoff hopes and more.

Sixteen players were initially ruled out or listed as questionable to play Sunday, and a 17th later joined the list. But they’re mostly Eagles players. For Washington, the news is actually quite good.

Quarterback Alex Smith, who was listed as questionable because of a calf strain, came out of Friday’s practice feeling good, and is expected to start for the first time since Week 14, a person familiar with the situation said.

Smith was limited in practice throughout the week, but unlike last week, when he came out of his first practice since suffering the injury experiencing a bit of soreness, he is said to have felt good Saturday when the team held its morning walk-through, and there is “a lot of optimism” around the team that Smith will be able to play. Taylor Heinicke is set to be his backup and would be called upon to start if Smith is unable to go.

Even better news: Smith could have his top two playmakers back, too.

Terry McLaurin also was listed as questionable Friday, but the second-year wide receiver intends to play, people familiar with the situation said Saturday. McLaurin is dealing with a high-ankle sprain, an injury that typically takes at least six weeks to recover from.

He first appeared on the injury report with an ankle issue in Week 11, but since then he has missed just one game as well as two weeks of practice. In the Week 15 loss to Seattle, McLaurin was favoring the leg between routes. He did not practice the following week or play against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. He watched from a box suite at FedEx Field, wearing a walking boot.

If McLaurin is a no-go, Washington will rely a group that features Cam Sims, Steven Sims Jr., Dontrelle Inman (who was elevated from the practice squad), Robert Foster and rookies Antonio Gandy-Golden and Isaiah Wright.

Running back Antonio Gibson, also listed as questionable because of turf toe, appears to be on track to play as well. Coach Ron Rivera had said earlier in the week that Gibson was held out of practice primarily to allow his toe extra rest after he played against the Panthers last week. If Gibson can’t go, Lamar Miller is likely to get his first action with Washington, joining J.D. McKissic and Peyton Barber in the backfield mix.

Washington also listed linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis (ankle) as questionable and ruled out Thomas Davis (knee) for what would’ve been the last regular season game of his career. Davis has said he intends to retire after this season.

WASHINGTON
INJURY
STATUS
Alex Smith, QB
Calf
Questionable
Terry McLaurin, WR
Ankle
Questionable
Antonio Gibson, RB
Toe
Questionable
Kevin Pierre-Louis, LB
Ankle
Questionable
Thomas Davis, LB
Knee
Out

But it gets better for Washington: It won’t have to contend with some of the Eagles’ biggest troublemakers. Their leading rusher (Miles Sanders), most productive tight end (Dallas Goedert), two starting defensive linemen (Derek Barnett and Fletcher Cox), starting left tackle (Jordan Mailata) and veteran wide receiver DeSean Jackson are out Sunday — among others.

Rounding out the list of 11 players Philadelphia ruled out are linebackers Shaun Bradley (neck) and Duke Riley (biceps), who were placed on injured reserve; tight end Richard Rodgers (ankle); and defensive backs Jalen Mills and Nickell Robey-Coleman, who are on the covid-19 reserve list. Cornerback Michael Jacquet (calf) was listed as questionable.

The Eagles were booted from playoff contention in Week 16, but their plan of “going out here to mess up some dreams,” as cornerback Darius Slay put it, will be difficult to accomplish. And the biggest loss for the Eagles could be Sanders.

The second-year running back totaled 867 rushing yards and six touchdowns to help the Eagles rank second in rushing average at 5.10 yards per carry. Washington’s run defense has been one of its most inconsistent units, and over the past three games it has given up an average of 134 yards. Sanders sitting out is a gift.

PHILADELPHIA
INJURY
STATUS
Derek Barnett, DE
Calf
Out
Shaun Bradley, LB
Neck
Out (injured reserve)
Fletcher Cox, LB
Neck
Out
Dallas Goedert, TE
Calf
Out
DeSean Jackson, WR
Ankle
Out
Jordan Mailata, LT
Concussion
Out
Duke Riley, LB
Biceps
Out (injured reserve)
Richard Rodgers, TE
Ankle
Out
Miles Sanders, RB
Knee
Out
Jalen Mills, S
Illness
Out (covid-19 reserve list)
Michael Jacquet, CB
Calf
Questionable

The rest of the NFC East will be pulling for Philadelphia. Not only is Washington’s first playoff appearance in five years on the line, but so are the playoff hopes of the Cowboys or the Giants. A win by Washington ends it all quickly and cleanly; it will get the No. 4 seed as the NFC East winner, and the other teams will begin planning for next season. If Washington loses, it will be eliminated, and the division winner will be the victor of Sunday afternoon’s matchup between Dallas and New York. If those teams tie and Washington loses, the Cowboys take the NFC East.

One guarantee: Whichever team wins the division will be the fifth team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to go to the playoffs with a losing record, joining the 1982 Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns (both finished 4-5 in a strike-shortened season with expanded playoffs), the 2010 Seattle Seahawks (7-9) and the 2014 Carolina Panthers (7-8-1).

“I don’t want this to be looked at any other way other than this: What we did, we accomplished a lot,” Rivera said. “ … This, to me, is house money. That’s the way I’m going to look at it. I want our guys to understand we came a long way. We did. Despite everything that happened in 2020, this football team has come a long way. Can we go further? I hope so. I really do.”

Chase Young’s upbringing made him a ‘crazy unusual’ leader, and Washington is already following

The second Washington-Philadelphia matchup of the season will look a lot different from the first, a 27-17 Washington victory in Week 1. Dwayne Haskins is gone, and Carson Wentz has been benched. Washington still must decide its starter at quarterback, but its defense has prepared for Jalen Hurts, the Eagles rookie who has averaged 282.3 passing yards and 79.3 rushing yards in three starts.

“Any time you play against a mobile quarterback, it always helps that you’ve done it before,” Washington defensive line coach Sam Mills III said. “We’ve played against some of the best this year so far. It’ll be another good test for us to see our growth. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

Washington is the only team in the NFL that has not scored on its opening possession. This is, in the words of some players, a “second-half team.” Washington has often dug itself a hole during the first two quarters and tried to climb out of it in the final two. It has the league’s third-worst first-half scoring differential (minus-106 points) but the best second-half scoring differential (plus-106).

Its issues aren’t the result of a complete void in production, though. Typically, it has been errors on critical plays or an inability to finish drives.

“Or everybody is doing the right thing and one guy is not,” offensive coordinator Scott Turner said. “Sometimes I’ll call a play and [the defense will] have a good play for it, and it stops the drive. I wish it were one thing you could point to. It’s not. It’s been a variety of different things. … Obviously it’s something that we have to figure out. It’s Week 17, and now more than ever would be the time that we need to go play fast and start fast.”

For all the warts of both teams, this game could be decided by one thing: ball security. Both teams rank among the most turnover-prone in the league, and that has cost them games. Washington is 0-7 in games in which it had a negative turnover differential, and Washington’s opponents have scored 88 points off takeaways.

Having Smith back could improve that. The “game manager” label carries a negative connotation, but Smith is one of the NFL’s best at protecting the ball. In his five starts this season, Washington turned the ball over four times. When he was out over the past two weeks, Washington had six turnovers.

Only one team has given up more plays of 40-plus yards than Washington (16): the Eagles (17). Over the past two weeks alone, Philadelphia allowed a league-high six plays of 40-plus yards — twice as many as Washington, which is tied for the second most at three. Five of those big plays helped set up scores by the Eagles’ opponent. The sixth was a 52-yard touchdown catch by Dallas rookie CeeDee Lamb, who beat cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman on a wheel route to put last Sunday’s game — and the playoffs — out of reach.

Read more on the Washington Football Team:

Analysis: Washington’s playoff hopes hinge completely on getting back Alex Smith

In victory for Daniel Snyder, judge sends ownership financial dispute back to NFL arbitrator

How Dwayne Haskins’s tenure with Washington unraveled in less than two years

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