At least the start of it was. It wasn’t long before reunion week became another memorable outing for Taylor Heinicke.
A week after he bested Tom Brady and the reigning Super Bowl champions, Heinicke led the Washington Football Team — and his coach and many assistants and teammates making their return — to a gutsy 27-21 win at Carolina, complete with his customary theatrics and late-game tricks. In a game that could have all but ended its hope of landing a playoff berth, Washington instead improved to 4-6 with its second straight win. Carolina fell to 5-6.
“I think the biggest thing he’s doing is he’s starting to see things,” Rivera said of Heinicke. “He’s starting to see what he needs to see, he’s throwing in the windows that he needs to throw, and we’re getting healthy up front.”
And with Heinicke spurring an offensive turnaround, Washington’s defense, which is missing star edge rushers Chase Young and Montez Sweat, has morphed into a formidable group in recent weeks. Rivera credited the team’s recent resurgence, in part, to its play in the trenches, which has sparked the running game and stabilized the defense. But Washington typically has been a second-half team, winning late and turning dismal beginnings into thrilling roller-coaster rides.
So far, it has yet to veer off track.
“They’ve become resilient, and they do the things that they need to,” Rivera said. “They rely on each other.”
But thrills aren’t always pretty, and Sunday’s first few series were nothing short of disastrous for Washington. Thanks to a penalty and a busted coverage, Carolina jumped to an early lead on Newton’s 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver DJ Moore, and Washington’s offense failed to respond.
Its opening drives have been persistent nuisances, and Sunday’s first series was squandered when the offense appeared confused as to whether a running or passing play had been called on third down. Nine players were run-blocking, and two others were in pass mode before Heinicke threw the ball away — and then threw his arms up in bewilderment.
There was a spark on Washington’s second possession thanks to Heinicke’s 30-yard completion to Terry McLaurin, but running back Antonio Gibson diffused any momentum with a fumble in the red zone. Gibson has fumbled five times this season, and Washington has lost three of them.
Gibson was benched for the rest of the half as Heinicke went to work with McLaurin and running back J.D. McKissic. After finding McLaurin for a 39-yard contested catch along the sideline, McKissic had a 15-yard run that set up a needle-threading, six-yard touchdown pass from Heinicke to Cam Sims that tied the score at 7 early in the second quarter.
But Newton, making his first start since he rejoined the Panthers, ensured the spotlight never strayed too far. Late in the quarter, he rushed 24 yards for a go-ahead touchdown — and then kept running to midfield, set the ball on the Panthers’ logo and puffed his chest like Superman as the Bank of America Stadium crowd roared.
Heinicke, once a jobless quarterback sleeping on his sister’s couch and hoping for another NFL job following a stint under Rivera with Carolina, showed no signs of slowing Sunday.
Just before the end of the half, Heinicke led Washington on a 12-play drive to even the score at 14, overcoming the loss of another center, Tyler Larsen, to an injury and a brutal penalty by his replacement. Wes Schweitzer, Heinicke’s second of three centers he took a snap from Sunday, was flagged for a false start on fourth and one, but with time ticking away, Rivera lived up to his “Riverboat Ron” nickname and went for it from the Carolina 43-yard line anyway.
Heinicke threw a dart to a wide-open DeAndre Carter for 18 yards. After a 12-yard completion to Adam Humphries on third and nine, Heinicke found McLaurin for another 12-yard grab — as Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn held him — in the end zone.
“It’s a culmination of a lot of things, but I feel like I’ve played better just by going out there and having fun, being myself and let the personality come out,” Heinicke said. “I think that kind of rubs off on some other guys. But there’s guys out there fighting, man. They’re really fighting — all 11 of those guys on every play doing the right thing.”
Washington has been without tight end Logan Thomas since Week 5 because of a hamstring injury and lost his backup, Ricky Seals-Jones, to a hip injury in Week 10. But with the emergence of Carter and the reliability of McLaurin, who finished with five catches for 103 yards in his fourth 100-yard receiving game of the season, Washington appears well equipped.
“He’s a killer,” Carter said of McLaurin. “... He takes big hits and still makes plays. He embodies who we are as a football team.”
After halftime, Washington regained another key piece of its offense. Gibson, free from his stint in timeout, bounced back to run for 42 yards on a drive that Heinicke capped with a four-yard pass to Carter. That gave Washington its first lead at 21-14 and propelled Gibson to a season-high 95 yards.
“You want that resilience, and he’s a young man that’s just going to get better and better the more he develops and grows,” Rivera said. “I wish he hadn’t fumbled, because it would have been a very good day for him.”
Washington’s lead was short-lived: Three possessions later, Newton threw a 27-yard dart to Christian McCaffrey to tie the score at 21. But Washington’s defensive line, which could have been a glaring weakness without Young and Sweat on the edge, proved to be a force, giving up only 59 yards to McCaffrey on the ground.
The final minutes typically have been Heinicke’s finest, with risky passes and the occasional pylon dive turning him into a fourth-quarter star. The final stretch of Sunday’s win was a shared effort with a rookie tight end and that depleted defensive line.
On fourth and three near midfield, Heinicke scrambled left and nearly took a sack before unloading a short pass to John Bates, who moved up for the six-yard grab.
“That scared the hell out of me,” Rivera said. “But that’s him. He’s got the ability. He sees things, and he’s got a very innate sense to him about certain plays like that.”
That drive sputtered, and Washington settled for a 36-yard field goal by Joey Slye, another former Panther. Its defense stopped McCaffrey short on a fourth-down catch at the Carolina 34, giving the offense another shot to expand its lead. Washington wisely turned to its ground game to burn the clock and inch its way upfield. But on third and 10 at the Carolina 18, Gibson ran for seven yards before unwisely going out of bounds, stopping the clock.
Slye knocked in a 29-yarder to give Washington a six-point edge, but 1:50 remained, leaving Newton with one final shot against his former coach in a stadium he again calls home. But his day ended with a thud when Daron Payne and James Smith-Williams pulled him down for a win-sealing sack near midfield — the same spot where Newton earlier celebrated Superman’s return.
“We’re just making the plays that we were missing at the beginning of the season,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “... I’m not a big fan of comparing seasons, because so much can change between them, but two wins in a row is huge. I think you can go as far as to say it saved our season.”
Newton finished 21 for 27 for 189 yards, two touchdowns and a 120.5 rating, plus 46 rushing yards, including that long touchdown run. Heinicke again played spoiler and star, going 16 for 22 for 206 yards, three touchdowns and a 141.3 rating to secure another “Victory Monday.”