Had the Washington Football Team not completely imploded in the red zone for the better part of the previous month, perhaps the story would be told differently. But after going 2-11 in the most critical area of the field during a losing streak, Washington needed a spark, and Taylor Heinicke needed it more.

So on a second and five from the Carolina 6-yard line, he launched one of the best throws of his young career.

The call was a run-pass option, with mirroring post routes by wide receivers Cam Sims and Terry McLaurin from the outside. McLaurin was Heinicke’s first read, but the Panthers aligned a safety and cornerback to his side, on the right, leaving Sims in a possible one-on-one matchup. When Heinicke faked the handoff to running back Jaret Patterson, Carolina safety Jeremy Chinn and linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. both dropped down and drifted to the right, leaving a hole in the middle.

Just as Sims broke inside, Heinicke sent a dart that sailed through the arms of two defenders, missing their hands by inches, before landing perfectly in the wide receiver’s grasp. After letting out a primal scream, Heinicke dropped to one knee for a celebratory fist pump. He understood the significance of the play he had just made.

“When you kind of make a throw like that for a touchdown in a big game like that, it gives you a lot of confidence,” he said Wednesday. “Ever since that throw, I've felt really good and just kind of kept on building on that.”

Heinicke has never appeared to be a player lacking for confidence on the field, and that touchdown pass was one of three in Washington’s Week 11 win over Carolina. But the play was, in many ways, the culmination of Heinicke’s growth in less than a season as a starter.

“I definitely think that one play could truly be the launching point for a career that can far exceed what anybody ever thought it would be able to be,” former NFL executive and current “Monday Night Football” analyst Louis Riddick said. “It’s the whole thing. It’s wanting to go to Terry first. It’s understanding that Carolina took Terry away, being able to quickly come backside and not second-guess himself as far as: ‘Is this window too tight? Is the safety going to be able to get underneath this throw? Is the linebacker coming inside out going to be able to get his hands on the ball?’

“He just ripped it and put it in about a one-foot box. It was insane. I ran the play back probably 10 times. It was a hell of a throw.”

Heinicke, an unknown to most when he signed to be Washington’s “quarantine quarterback” this time last year, has turned one impressive playoff start in January into a season-long tryout for a longer-term starting job. The first half of the season was marked by disappointment, with a mix of impressive plays and bad plays. But over the past three games, Heinicke, with the help of a productive running game, has helped spearhead a winning streak that has moved Washington into the seventh and final playoff spot in the NFC.

“I do feel like I’m playing probably some of my best football I’ve ever played, and I think that’s a credit to the coaches and just really working hard and keeping the ball in our possession,” he said. “ … That throw to Cam, if I don’t throw it on time, it’s a bad throw and that’s the basis of it — if you don’t throw that ball on time, you can’t throw it. … You watch the four-game skid, I’m kind of late on throws, or I’m overthinking stuff and maybe floating things. Coming off the bye week, we really just want to work on our timing and just being on point.”

The lesson was one offensive coordinator Scott Turner and Coach Ron Rivera had preached for weeks when asked about Heinicke’s play during the team’s struggles. He could extend plays with his feet, and he was unafraid to take shots down the field, but often his passes arrived behind his targets, above their heads or, worse, in the arms of defenders.

Heinicke admitted after the bye week that while trying to avoid unnecessary hits and trying to be “perfect” on every play, he was often tentative with his decisions. He plays better, he said, when his personality comes out.

In Carolina, he let loose.

“My angle from the box was right down his high line, so I could see it the way he did,” Turner said. “So when I saw the safety going to the right, I was like, ‘Oh, Cam,’ and he threw it right on time, and I saw it go right through the hole.

“The thing I was happiest about — and it’s happened more and more — is just the decisiveness of, ‘Hey, I’m pulling the trigger.’ Because windows, especially in the red zone, where some of our struggles have been, those are only open for like a split second, and then they close up quickly. So to be able to recognize and pull the trigger before that closed up was huge.”

Brian Griese, the former NFL quarterback and current “Monday Night Football” analyst, knew little of Heinicke before the playoffs in January. But he, too, noticed a change in Heinicke as he reviewed his game film ahead of Washington’s win over the Seahawks.

“He’s got a lot of really good skill sets. I mean, stuff that you can’t teach — the competitiveness and the moxie and the charisma,” Griese said. “There’s a lot of really talented quarterbacks out there that never get a team to believe in them. He has a unique ability to do that. He’s one of the guys, and he’s tough and smart. He really is understanding what it means and what it takes to win.”

Heinicke’s play hasn’t been free of mistakes, and the sample size remains small. But his improvement and natural ability to galvanize a team have created an interesting decision for Washington as it pushes for another playoff run and mulls its future beyond this season.

The team’s final six games, beginning Sunday at the Las Vegas Raiders, may be the most important weeks of Heinicke’s career. He has one year left on his contract after this season, and Washington may decide to draft a quarterback or pursue a veteran this offseason. But with consistency and more plays like that six-yard touchdown to Sims, he could make a convincing case for the long-term starting job.

“When a rookie plays like that, you’re like, ‘Man, this guy could really grow into something and we’re going to see,’ and we are seeing as the season’s going on, ‘What can Taylor grow into?’ ” Turner said. “The biggest thing is he’s just a warrior. He’s going to give you everything he has, and the other players feel that and know that. Guys want to play with a guy like that.”