The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Washington edges the Seahawks to claim a third straight win — and move into playoff position

Washington's Kendall Fuller pulls in an interception during the Seahawks' attempt at a tying two-point conversion with 15 seconds left Monday night. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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A switch flipped during the Washington Football Team’s bye week. Maybe it was mental. Maybe it was the physical reprieve. Maybe it was a minor personnel move, a tweak to the scheme or even something less obvious, but something changed — because the 2-6 team that appeared a discombobulated mess after Week 8 has morphed into a team worthy of an audience.

And it got one on “Monday Night Football” at FedEx Field. Behind a resilient defense and a consistent running game, Washington defeated the Seattle Seahawks, 17-15, to move into playoff contention as the seventh-place team in the NFC. The victory extended Washington’s post-bye winning streak to three and snapped an eight-game losing streak on Monday night in prime time that stretched back to 2014.

But more than anything, it seemed to solidify a sharp turnaround. Washington (5-6) appears to be a team that can no longer be ignored or written off as a fluke — even in the lagging NFC East.

“Whenever you can string three games in a row in the NFL, it’s a positive,” defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “I think we’ve been playing very consistently, and I think we’re ascending in the right direction. A lot of things we did good, a lot of things we would like to clean up, but a great team win.”

Coach Ron Rivera has made a habit of sparking late-season resurgences, and for a second season in Washington, his team has hit its stride just in time for a playoff push. After a meeting with the Raiders in Las Vegas on Sunday, Washington faces a grueling five-game stretch against divisional opponents.

“What we talked about was really about position,” Rivera said. “We’ve got one more game, and then we’ve got the five-game round robin. We’re going to have to take on the Raiders and get ready for them, and then we’ll worry about the next five games.”

But first Washington had to get past Seattle, which boasts a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Russell Wilson but one of the league’s worst offenses.

Washington’s defense further exposed the Seahawks, but only after a blip in the first quarter, when Seattle scored after a pair of third-down conversions. Wilson was knocked down by defensive tackle Daron Payne on third and one, but a busted coverage allowed him to complete a 55-yard pass to Tyler Lockett along the sideline. Three plays later, on third and five from the 6-yard line, Wilson threaded the needle for a touchdown pass to Gerald Everett, giving Seattle a 7-3 lead — but a short-lived lead.

Takeaways from Monday's win over the Seahawks

From then on, Seattle (3-8) was forced to punt (eight times!) or face the wrath of Landon Collins, the defender with no true position.

The safety has converted into more of a linebacker this season — “It’s really just a dropdown safety,” Rivera said, “so if you guys say that once in a while, he’ll be happy” — playing primarily in the box while occasionally dropping into coverage. The result has altered the look of Washington’s defense, giving its thin linebacking corps a boost while allowing coordinator Jack Del Rio to feature second-year safety Kam Curl even more.

“He’s doing the things that we feel that he has the perfect skill set for,” Rivera said. “... That’s the kind of production that position needs. If there are 60 plays, it’s going to play at least 50, 55 of those plays.”

On Monday night, Collins wreaked havoc on Seattle’s offense, recording a tackle for loss on its opening drive to force a three-and-out, forcing a fumble in the second quarter that set up Washington’s first touchdown and blitzing on third and long in the third quarter to help Curl get a sack.

“We’re just clicking,” Collins said. “Keeping each other accountable. ... And the offense is keeping us fresh.”

With Taylor Heinicke under center, Washington found its groove but only after a mistake-filled first quarter. A 15-play drive stalled after more than nine minutes, forcing Washington to settle for a 23-yard field goal by Joey Slye, and then in the second quarter Heinicke was intercepted by Jamal Adams on a pass intended for tight end Logan Thomas. Thomas took a brutal shot, and Seattle took the ball — but not for long.

Collins forced a fumble two plays later, punching the ball out of Alex Collins’s arms. The takeaway sparked a turnaround from the Washington offense, which relied heavily on the ground game to burn the clock and wear out Seattle’s defense.

Seattle executed only 45 plays, compared with Washington’s 79, and had only 10 first downs. Washington had 27 first downs, and its offense stayed on the field for nearly 42 minutes, leaving Seattle roughly 18 to find production (and points).

“Whenever our offense can run the ball like that, the time of possession is huge,” Allen said. “Their defense is on the field a lot. We’re not. We’re going out there fresh, and they’re going out a little more worn out. So, as an offense, whenever you can control the line of scrimmage like that or really run the ball at will, it’s always good for the defense.”

With a balance of run and pass plays, Washington marched upfield after the fumble, and J.D. McKissic, former Seahawk, capped the drive with a 10-yard touchdown catch — his first of two scores on the night.

“I think he’s one of the most versatile guys in the league,” Rivera said. “He’s a threat on first, second or third down. He’s a guy that really you want to have in there as much as possible.”

But Washington, never free of inexplicable moments, had its share Monday, too. Slye’s extra-point attempt after McKissic’s go-ahead touchdown was blocked by Rasheem Green, a 6-foot-4, 279-pound defensive end who grabbed the ball and ran it all the way back for a two-point conversion that tied the score at 9.

When Slye attempted to tackle Green on the return, he strained his hamstring, rendering Washington kicker-less for the rest of the game. Rivera’s plan was to have punter Tress Way handle kickoffs and to go for it on fourth down in field goal range.

Svrluga: Washington, with substance over style, has forced its way into the playoff picture

But behind a defense that remained resilient and an offense that has found new ways to win, Washington tacked on more long drives to burn the clock. And it did so with another rotation in the middle of the offensive line after Wes Schweitzer, a guard who had been filling at center, went down with an ankle injury in the second quarter. Schweitzer took over the starting job from Tyler Larsen, who replaced starter Chase Roullier (fractured fibula) but then suffered a knee injury against the Carolina Panthers in Week 11. When Schweitzer went down, Keith Ismael took over, snapping to Heinicke for the first time.

On its first possession of the third quarter, Washington had an 11-play drive that spanned 73 yards and lasted nearly five minutes, ending with the second touchdown by McKissic, this one a 10-yard run. Antonio Gibson (29 carries, 111 yards) followed with a two-point conversion run to make it 17-9.

McKissic’s night ended on a medical cart after he took a knee to the helmet in the fourth quarter and suffered a neck injury, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. He was walking around in the locker room after the game, but Washington will have a better understanding of the severity of his injury after he undergoes further examination Tuesday.

Washington ran the ball 43 times for 152 yards, giving it a three-game average of 39 carries and 145.3 yards.

“It’s just the confidence that we’ve had the last two weeks,” Heinicke said. “Tampa Bay has a really good rush defense — I think they’re second in the league — and we had that 10-minute drive at the end of the game and kind ran it down their throat, and that kind of gave them confidence. Then we go again against Carolina, same thing. And we just keep rolling over week to week. Confidence in that room is at an all-time high, and they’re playing really hard. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, so keep running the ball.”

Yet Heinicke delivered another impressive performance as he continues to vie for the long-term job. He completed 27 of 35 passes for 223 yards, one touchdown and one interception for a 90.5 rating.

Just as promising was the play of the defense, which, while still messy at times, continued to show signs of improvement. At the end, it bent and nearly broke before recovering and clinching the win.

Not long after Washington, without Slye, was denied on fourth down deep in Seattle territory, Wilson unleashed a 32-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Freddie Swain with 15 seconds left, capping a desperate 96-yard drive and narrowing Washington’s lead to 17-15.

“It’s scary because you’ve seen Russell do that over the last 10 years,” Heinicke said. “You can never count him out.”

But Seattle’s tying two-point attempt went awry when Wilson’s pass up the middle to Swain was picked off by cornerback Kendall Fuller, and Washington survived the onside kick to hold on.

For the third week in a row, Washington ended in victory formation. And for the second season in a row, Washington, the unlikeliest of contenders just weeks earlier, is squarely in the playoff hunt.

“I think we’re coming together and being the kind of team that we envisioned,” Rivera said. “If we continue to work and play the way we’ve played, we give ourselves a chance. And that’s all we need — a chance.”