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With Taylor Heinicke in charge, Commanders find a way to rally past Packers

Commanders 23, Packers 21

Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke and wide receiver Terry McLaurin connected for the go-ahead touchdown pass in the third quarter and two more crucial catches in the final minutes. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The boos started at the first half’s two-minute warning — and were followed by chants of “Sell the team!” The Washington Commanders had just thrown away another chance to score Sunday, and during the break in the action, co-owner Tanya Snyder appeared on the big screen as part of a public-service announcement about breast cancer.

The crowd at FedEx Field erupted. Had there not been so many Green Bay Packers fans in attendance, their voices would have carried even farther.

Perhaps Taylor Heinicke heard it. Not long after the Commanders returned for the second half, the replacement quarterback launched a 37-yard pass that fell into the arms of wide receiver Terry McLaurin for the go-ahead touchdown. Lifted by newfound hope, the crowd erupted once more.

After stumbling to a 0.0 passer rating early in the game amid poor throws and an interception returned for a score, Heinicke rebounded in the second half to lead the Commanders to a 23-21 win, their second in a row.

“I go out there and play like it’s my last game,” Heinicke said. “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but that’s just how I play — and that’s when I think I play my best.”

The win, ugly as it was to start, improved Washington to 3-4, cast a different feel in the locker room afterward and, for the first time since a season-opening win, showed glimpses of complementary football. All three phases — offense, defense and special teams — found a groove Sunday, turning much of the pent-up frustration from the past few weeks into renewed hope.

Takeaways from Sunday's win

Heinicke finished 20 for 33 for 201 yards, two touchdowns and an interception for an 85.5 passer rating, a stat line that could have been much worse.

The undrafted fan favorite, picked to start while Carson Wentz recovers from finger surgery, began Sunday’s game 0 for 4. Despite starting 15 games last season and having the most experience in this offense of any Washington quarterback, his timing clearly was off. A first-quarter pass intended for McLaurin up the middle was thrown behind the receiver and nearly got picked off. A few plays later, after the Commanders recovered a muffed punt in the Packers’ red zone, Heinicke tossed a fade to tight end Cole Turner from the 3-yard line that was too high and had too much velocity.

Washington had to settle for a field goal, trimming its early deficit to 7-3. The Commanders later squandered another gift from the Packers, an illegal contact penalty that negated a Heinicke fumble that had been run back for a touchdown.

“I was kind of panicking,” said Heinicke, who admitted he didn’t initially know a penalty had been called. “I was like, ‘Not this again.’ ”

Had the play stood, it would have been the second turnover the Packers directly capitalized on, following De’Vondre Campbell’s pick-six earlier in the second quarter that had put Green Bay up 14-3.

Instead, Washington, trailing 14-10 at the time, got a do-over and five free yards at the Green Bay 34. But the drive stalled — and Joey Slye hit the right upright on a 47-yard field goal attempt.

Moments later, boos rained down. Chants of “Sell the team!” followed, a troubling scenario for the franchise just days after Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said he believes there’s “merit to remove” Commanders owner Daniel Snyder amid the team’s many off-the-field concerns.

During a pregame ceremony featuring more than 100 alumni and former cheerleaders at the stadium’s Legends Plaza, Tanya Snyder yelled, “Hail to the Redskins!” eliciting cheers from some former players. There was no attempt to correct herself after using the team’s defunct name, which made for an interesting juxtaposition to the franchise’s lengthy rebrand and insistence of culture change.

Buckner: Even a win won’t drown out Commanders fans’ refrain: Sell the team

Commanders fans in the stadium issued a much louder message near the end of the first half, but their tune changed as the play improved. Late in the second quarter, Tress Way boomed a punt 68 yards that was downed at the 1-yard line, denying the Packers a late-half response.

At the start of the second half, Washington needed just five plays to reach the end zone and grab the lead. Wide receiver Curtis Samuel broke off a 16-yard run, tight end Armani Rogers added nine yards on a catch, then Heinicke threw that 37-yard rainbow to McLaurin.

“When I knew the go route was on and I saw man [coverage] with no help, I don’t really take it as, ‘Oh, they’re disrespecting me,’ ” McLaurin said. “But at the same time, you see that, and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is a great opportunity for myself.’ … Taylor couldn’t have done a better job of putting the ball where it needed to be. He almost just walked it to me. It fell right out of the sky. I told him that was the best rep we’ve had since we’ve been together.”

Coach Ron Rivera credited Heinicke’s “underdog mentality” for his second-half turnaround.

“You look at the things that he does and the way he handles it, understanding what his mistake was, understanding what he had to correct,” Rivera said. “It’s all about timing. ... You see it with the timing on the throw to Terry. It was about as good as it gets right there.”

The touchdown was a jolt to the Commanders and put the momentum squarely in their favor as quarterback Aaron Rodgers’s frustration with his receivers mounted for the scuffling Packers, who have lost three in a row. Washington’s defense fed off the energy and quickly forced the Packers (3-4) off the field so the Commanders could notch another scoring drive, a clock-eating march that ended with Slye’s 31-yard field goal to make it 20-14.

As Washington’s offense has waffled between bad and abominable for much of the season, its defense has steadily improved. The line was the only one in the league to feature three players — tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne and end Montez Sweat — with 20 or more quarterback hits through Week 6. In a win at Chicago the previous week, the defense’s goal-line stops were the difference. On Sunday, its stop on a Green Bay fourth down staved off the Packers before another late in regulation sealed the win. Washington also held the Packers to 0 for 6 on third down.

When the Commanders failed to punch the ball into the end zone after making it to the Green Bay 2-yard line early in the fourth, Slye knocked in a 19-yard field goal to expand their lead to two scores at 23-14. But that left plenty of time for some late-game magic from Rodgers. Sure enough, the Packers responded with a 21-yard touchdown toss to Aaron Jones to close the gap to 23-21, leaving close to four minutes for the Commanders to burn.

Enter McLaurin, whom Washington signed to a three-year, $71 million extension this past offseason. For weeks, Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner said the team had to find a way to get McLaurin the ball earlier and more often.

Heinicke found him for a 14-yard catch on a critical second and six, sparing the Commanders another third and long that probably would have led to a punt. When they did fall into third and long three players later, McLaurin came up big again, catching a 12-yard lob from Heinicke in tight coverage that moved the Commanders to the Green Bay 44-yard line.

“When you make that play it’s just like: ‘Dang, this is what you’ve been working for. This is what you’ve been waiting for,’ ” McLaurin said. “I just hope that continues throughout, not just for me but our whole receivers group because I genuinely feel like we have a dynamic group that can make big plays down the field.”

The catch pushed McLaurin past the 3,500-yard career mark in receiving and all but ensured a victory. It also incited the crowd at FedEx Field again — this time with chants of “Ter-ry! Ter-ry!

After a late punt pinned Green Bay deep without any timeouts, the Commanders staved off a last-gasp hook and lateral from the Packers, who tried to zigzag their way into the end zone as time expired. When the mayhem ended, high-fives and cheers came from the stands as Commanders fans headed for the exits.

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