The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The WFT’s long-term outlook is still TBD. But its resilience has it in the playoff mix.

The Washington defense recovers a Seahawks fumble during the second quarter of Monday's game. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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The game film from Monday night won’t be sent straight to Canton. No team that concedes what could be the game-tying touchdown on a 32-yard pass with 15 seconds remaining can be considered a real threat once the playoffs begin — if, in fact, it’s fortunate enough to get there at all.

But here is the Washington Football Team as December arrives: owners of a down-to-the-last-play 17-15 victory over the Seattle Seahawks at FedEx Field that puts its winning streak at three, which a month ago felt darned near impossible. Yet now, there’s a jumble of teams at 5-6 and on the edge of the NFC’s playoff race. Maybe they’re all different shades of mediocre. There sits Washington, right in the thick. Seven teams will make the NFC playoffs. At the moment, Washington sits as the seventh seed.

“We got some momentum right now,” star wide receiver Terry McLaurin said.

It took Kendall Fuller’s interception of Russell Wilson’s pass on what would have been the game-tying two-point conversion to sustain that momentum. Only then could this limited, beat-up but rather game crew exhale.

“We’re coming together,” Coach Ron Rivera said, “being the kind of team we envisioned.”

Four takeaways from Washington's win over the Seahawks

The vision, for sure, must be more … well, more — across the board. Smarter, more polished, more explosive than what Washington produced against the Seahawks, who appear to be imploding. More than halfway through his second season, the long-term success of Rivera’s entire program is still very much TBD. That was true whether Washington squeaked out Monday night’s win or let it slip away.

But it’s also fair to acknowledge that ugly wins count the same as gorgeous wins, and there’s something to be said for a team playing its fourth center, without an option to kick field goals because its kicker was out with a hamstring issue, and with one defensive end out for the year and another out for at least a month — winning anyway.

“I’m very proud of these guys because of how resilient we were and how tough it was,” Rivera said. “… All they need is a chance.”

So that’s what they have: a chance. What it means when 2022 dawns? Who knows? What it means in the moment: substance over style, with an autopsy revealing some ingredients that might make winning sustainable for the WFT.

Put Seattle’s offense — which is basically unwatchable — aside, and think about some commonalities in these past three Washington wins. One jumps out: time of possession. Against Tampa Bay, the WFT held the ball for an astonishing 39 minutes 8 seconds — essentially two-thirds of the game. Against Carolina, Washington had it for 35:53 — almost 12 more minutes than the Panthers.

The final totals Monday night: Washington 41:40, having run 79 plays; Seattle 18:20, having run 45. Makes you think quarterback Taylor Heinicke eats clock for breakfast.

“Our offense is keeping us fresh,” safety-turned-linebacker Landon Collins said.

So that’s the formula: Keep the ball away from the other team, and running back Antonio Gibson’s 29-carry, 111-yard performance helps to that end. Yet there’s a formula within the formula, too: Convert on third down offensively, which Washington had done 17 of 32 times combined against Tampa Bay and Carolina, and get off the field on third down defensively.

That first number dropped against Seattle to 5 of 13. But consider that of the third downs Washington faced Monday night, eight were third and five or shorter. Heinicke can be a thrill to watch, but keeping things third-and-manageable gives him a much better opportunity to produce those thrills. More than that: The defense absolutely suffocated Seattle — oof, are there problems for the Seahawks, both in the short and long term — forcing eight punts. Seattle’s third-down conversions: 4 of 12.

It’s just another element that makes the miserable start to this season seem more distant. Remember, through seven games, Washington had allowed a staggering 56.9 percent of third-down conversions, worst in the NFL. Now — without injured defensive ends Chase Young and Montez Sweat — it can appear to be a three-and-out machine. That’s a head-scratching change in personnel and results, and drawing a relationship between the absences and the victories is worthy of further examination. Yet here we are, flipping the expected on its head.

Something else that flipped against Seattle were maybe the three most dreaded words for Washington’s fan base — well, other than “Daniel Marc Snyder”: “Monday Night Football.”

There’s no reason that this team — or any team — should have a particular issue with any particular time of day or day of the week. But the crowd that filed into FedEx on Monday night had a deep understanding of this team’s issues on Monday night, which would be eight straight losses dating from 2014, when Colt McCoy (remember him?) delivered an overtime victory at Dallas. There have been different coaches and different quarterbacks, but always the same results — losses by an average of almost two touchdowns.

That couldn’t … that doesn’t … there’s no impact on these guys, right?

“I didn’t know that stat,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said, “so it’s not really something I focused on.”

Is this Washington Football Team for real? Send Barry Svrluga your questions.

But as soon as that sort of straight-up rational thinking enters the brain, something goes down that makes it feel as if the universe is stacked against Washington. Something like scoring the go-ahead touchdown right before halftime — on a nice, 10-yard catch-and-run from vital and versatile J.D. McKissic — and having it not be the go-ahead touchdown. That’s because the ensuing extra-point attempt was blocked, and because Seattle defensive lineman Rasheem Green scooped it up and rumbled his 6-foot-4, 279-yard frame all the way to the opposite end zone — Washington’s special negative-two-point conversion.

That’s how a 10-7 lead becomes a 9-9 tie. It’s not Jim Zorn-swinging-gate-against-the-Giants bad, because nothing is Jim Zorn-swinging-gate-against-the-Giants bad. But it somehow fits into that legacy.

Maybe that’s another way this gang is changing things. It’s incremental, because a loss Sunday at Las Vegas would undo so much of the good they have put together. It’s also fragile, because it’s hard to imagine holding the ball for eternity against the more explosive Raiders, not to mention Dallas the following week.

“The thing you can count on for sure,” Allen said, “is if we don’t win games, it doesn’t matter.”

It’s also okay, though, to be interested and invested. December arrives this week. The race to the playoffs is on. It includes Washington, which doesn’t seem like a threat to play deep into the tournament.

But a month ago, the WFT didn’t seem likely to be playing meaningful games past Thanksgiving, either. Now, they’re here. The results will reveal much about the trajectory of Rivera’s rebuild — which matters not only for the remainder of 2021 but for the future, too.