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Back home again, Terry McLaurin leads the Commanders’ rally past the Colts

Commanders 17, Colts 16

Wide receiver Terry McLaurin's late grab against the Colts' Stephon Gilmore came one play before the Commanders' go-ahead score. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

INDIANAPOLIS — Just before the Washington Commanders’ final drive Sunday, when they trailed the Indianapolis Colts by six with less than three minutes to go, a group of Terry McLaurin’s closest friends made their way from Section 118 at Lucas Oil Stadium down to the first row behind the team bench.

Grant Prather, 26, took the initiative and yelled to McLaurin from the stands.

“He was telling me, ‘Yo, got to go make the play to win the game!’ ” McLaurin recalled after the Commanders’ 17-16 victory. “Your family and your friends think you’re going to make every single play and you’re just going to run off into the sunset. You just don’t know how it’s going to come up.”

But Prather did — because he had seen it many times at this stadium, dating as far back as McLaurin’s middle school days.

“There was no doubt in my mind,” Prather said. “... This is just what he does.”

McLaurin’s wide receivers coach, Drew Terrell, knew how it would end, too. He saw it just last weekend against the Green Bay Packers.

“Hell, yeah,” Terrell said. “When I saw him turn and run, I looked back at [quarterback Taylor Heinicke] to see if Taylor was looking at him. When I saw that he was throwing it up, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah — game over.’ ”

And of course McLaurin’s quarterback knew. As he turned away from his intended target, Heinicke found McLaurin making a beeline to the end zone and thought, “Hey, let’s give him another shot.”

With 41 seconds remaining, McLaurin put a double move on two-time all-pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore by running upfield, turning and stopping in the flat, then turning back to the end zone as Heinicke lobbed a pass his way. With Gilmore clinging to his shoulder, McLaurin held on to the ball as he tumbled to the turf at the 1-yard line for a 33-yard gain, setting up a quick touchdown run by Heinicke to win it.

McLaurin stormed off the field after his catch, yelling: “This is my city! This is my f---ing city!”

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The Indianapolis native who grew up a Colts fan and idolized Hall of Fame wide receiver Marvin Harrison couldn’t have scripted a better homecoming. McLaurin’s Cathedral High teams won four state championships at Lucas Oil Stadium, he won two Big Ten titles with Ohio State there, and in his first game home as a pro, McLaurin came away as the star and savior of the Commanders’ victory, which extended their winning streak to three games.

Now 4-4, Washington is squarely in the hunt for an NFC wild-card spot — and it largely has McLaurin to thank. He had six catches for 113 yards Sunday and has been the difference-maker in consecutive weeks, proving Washington right in its decision to hand him more than $70 million on a contract extension over the summer.

His feat Sunday was shared by more than 70 friends and family members who saw a performance that reinforced their years-long assessment. Among that group was Prather and six others who have been part of McLaurin’s rise since elementary school and were with him again in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium to celebrate his victory.

What they didn’t know was McLaurin was a decoy on the play.

“We were really trying to pry a hole open for the number two guy,” Heinicke explained. “I wasn’t comfortable throwing to the number two guy because I couldn’t see clearly. He might’ve been open. Maybe not. I don’t know.”

The play turned into a scramble drill, and when he turned left, Heinicke saw McLaurin sprint past Gilmore to the end zone.

“Terry wasn’t going to be denied,” Coach Ron Rivera said.

“Terry’s that dude,” Heinicke said. “He’s got that dog in him, and I want to continue to give him opportunities to make big plays.”

The play was another chapter in McLaurin’s storied career in Indianapolis — and the most memorable moment in an otherwise sloppy win that turned inspiring in the final minutes.

“I had a lot of confidence I was going to come down with that ball,” McLaurin said. “... It’s kind of cool to be able to make that kind of play when earlier in my career, in college and stuff, I struggled with contested catches.”

Analysis from Sunday's win

Nothing ever comes easy for these Commanders — not even a should-win game against a Colts team featuring a quarterback who had never thrown an NFL pass. Not even when that lowly Colts team all but handed them gifts.

The Commanders were ahead 7-3 in the second quarter when the Colts (3-4-1), led by 2021 sixth-round draft pick Sam Ehlinger, ran the ball six consecutive times. The Colts made it all the way to the Washington 13-yard line before Ehlinger dropped the ball on a scramble. Washington recovered the fumble, only to burn a pair of timeouts before Heinicke threw a near-interception.

On one side, the Colts had offered an indictment of their young quarterback with a just-run-the-ball-and-don’t-screw-up game plan. On the other, Washington’s defense had been gashed, and its quarterback was seemingly out of control.

But messy is the Washington way — especially with Heinicke, who finished 23 for 31 for 279 yards, one touchdown and one interception for a 98.7 passer rating. As a locker-room favorite, he almost instantly provided a boost to the Commanders’ lagging offense in a Week 7 home win against the Packers while filling in for the injured Carson Wentz. And in spurts Sunday, that magic was there.

After connecting with McLaurin for a 42-yard catch-and-run out of the slot, Heinicke found running back Antonio Gibson for a nine-yard touchdown pass and a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter. But any momentum that drive created quickly fizzled.

The defense, playing without linebacker Cole Holcomb (foot sprain), tried to compensate by using more five-man fronts that it paired with its big nickel package (three safeties and two cornerbacks) on the back end. But the Colts and their 30th-ranked rushing attack made light work of the Commanders in the first half, collecting 92 yards for an average of 6.6 per carry. Only a pair of turnovers in the red zone spared the Commanders more significant damage.

After that Ehlinger fumble late in the second quarter, running back Jonathan Taylor fumbled deep in Washington territory late in the third. Second-year safety Darrick Forrest knocked the ball out of Taylor’s grasp while tackling him, and defensive end Casey Toohill recovered.

But Washington squandered the gift. The offense went three-and-out after Heinicke was sacked on third down. The Colts ripped off a couple of big plays before safety Kam Curl stopped them short of the goal line and Jamin Davis followed with a run stuff to force Indianapolis to settle for a field goal.

That was enough for the Colts to claim a 9-7 lead. The Commanders had plenty of time to bounce back, but they didn’t take the easy route.

On the first play of the next possession, Heinicke, under heavy pressure from defensive end Tyquan Lewis, launched a pass up the middle, where wide receiver Cam Sims was surrounded by three Colts. Linebacker Shaquille Leonard picked off the pass, and roughly a minute later, the Colts were in the end zone on a six-yard touchdown run by Nyheim Hines that expanded their lead to 16-7.

A week after looking somewhat efficient, the Commanders struggled with issues on both sides of the ball. The defense failed to eliminate big plays, allowing four of 25 yards or more. The offense struggled to create lanes for its rushers, resulting in only 96 yards on 28 carries (3.4 per attempt). And only three of Washington’s 11 drives gained more than 30 yards, thanks largely to an abysmal showing on third down (2 for 12, 16.7 percent).

Rivera couldn’t hide his frustration, even after the win, “because there are some things we should have done,” he said.

The Commanders had a chance for a touchdown earlier in the fourth, but a failed third-down attempt killed the drive and left them with three points on a 28-yard field goal by Joey Slye.

After the defense held, McLaurin got his moment in the final seconds. In the tunnel not much later, he reunited with Prather and his longtime friends. As they embraced, Prather reminded McLaurin of what he had seen and known for years.

“I grew up with Terry,” he said. “I’ve seen him score in this stadium in middle school. I saw him score in this stadium in high school. I saw him score in the Big Ten championship. So I said, ‘Go win the game, man.’ And he said, ‘I got you.’ ”

McLaurin was the star after the game. Before it, he was star-struck.

“I just wanted to stay focused on the game, but pregame, Marvin Harrison came up to me and wanted to take a picture, and I’m like, ‘Me?’ ” he said. “That was just an extremely full-circle moment.

“You just never know when you’re a kid. You’re just dreaming and you’re standing right next to your idols … and then you get to come into the game, play in front of your family and friends and have a chance to make the play to win the game? I’m blessed.”