The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taylor Heinicke can’t keep it going as Kirk Cousins denies the Commanders

Vikings 20, Commanders 17

Taylor Heinicke suffered his first loss as the Commanders' starting quarterback this season. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

It was second and long early in the third quarter Sunday with the Washington Commanders near midfield when Taylor Heinicke dropped back, shifted slightly left to avoid the pressure, then launched a rocket toward the goal line for Curtis Samuel.

On the sideline, their coach’s head dropped in dismay.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Ron Rivera recalled thinking.

But as the ball sailed downfield, the wide receiver sprinted toward the goal line as three Minnesota Vikings defenders converged on him. One of them — safety Camryn Bynum — collided with the back judge at the Minnesota 7-yard line and tumbled along the ground like a bowling ball beneath the feet of Samuel and the Vikings’ Harrison Smith and Patrick Peterson, who had to sidestep him as Samuel secured the pass and tumbled into the end zone for a miracle touchdown catch.

The FedEx Field crowd erupted with chants of “Hein-ick-e! Hein-ick-e!” The 49-yard score was upheld on review, turning a potentially disastrous pass into a game-altering, stadium-shaking feat. But not long after, the Commanders’ momentum fizzled behind another game-changing throw from Heinicke: an untimely interception.

That turnover helped the Vikings erase a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit as they rallied to hand the Commanders a 20-17 loss that ended their three-game winning streak.

“Now I know what the Colts felt like, having a lead slip away and to lose like that,” left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said, referring to the Commanders’ comeback win at Indianapolis a week earlier.

The loss dropped Washington to 4-5 ahead of a trip to the unbeaten Philadelphia Eagles (8-0) on “Monday Night Football” in Week 10. It also was another reminder of the franchise’s quarterback conundrum.

Takeaways from Sunday's loss

Kirk Cousins, Washington’s former signal-caller making his FedEx Field return, left his old haunt as the leader of the 7-1 Vikings. The Commanders endured another up-and-down game behind Heinicke — the scrappy fan favorite filling in for Carson Wentz, who in Week 1 became the team’s 11th starter since Cousins departed five years ago.

The defeat was every bit a Heinicke game, featuring reckless abandon that enthralls fans but toes the line between foolhardy and savvy. Had his throw to Samuel been intercepted, it would have doused any hope for a momentum swing in a critical NFC matchup. Had his fourth-quarter interception landed in the hands of tight end Logan Thomas, his intended target, Heinicke probably would have left FedEx Field to fans chanting his name again.

Instead, he played the role of temporary hero, finishing 15 for 28 for 149 yards, two touchdowns and an interception for a 77.8 passer rating.

“Pretty much what you get from Taylor,” Rivera said. “He’s going to control things. He’s going to handle things. He’s going to make plays. Unfortunately, he gave one away.”

For much of the first half, Washington’s offense struggled. The Commanders produced just 38 yards in the first quarter — while losing approximately 39 on mistakes in punt coverage.

The Vikings’ game plan appeared to be focused on keeping Heinicke in the pocket and not letting him scramble or improvise to extend plays. And for the most part, it worked. But the Commanders’ defense kept them in it. Minnesota managed just one touchdown in a first half that ended with the Vikings up 7-3 but seemed much more lopsided.

Everything changed when Samuel caught that rocket from Heinicke. Washington forced the Vikings into third and 11 and a punt on their ensuing drive. The Commanders gained more steam as Heinicke hit Terry McLaurin for a 15-yard catch, and although the drive ended when Heinicke was off the mark on fourth and one, the defense again came through, forcing a three-and-out.

What worked for Minnesota in the first half failed to stop Heinicke in the third quarter: He resorted to scrambling and dodging defenders, one time lowering his shoulder to spin off linebacker Eric Kendricks and pick up nine yards on second and 10. Washington challenged the ruling that he was short of the sticks and lost, costing it a timeout.

No matter.

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Undrafted rookie tight end Armani Rogers ran for 24 yards, and four plays later, Heinicke found 2021 seventh-round pick Dax Milne from six yards out for his first career touchdown catch, expanding the Commanders’ lead to 17-7 with 14:14 left.

The stands at FedEx Field shook as fans trolled Cousins with “You like that! You like that!” — a reference to Cousins’s famous declaration in 2015, when he was Washington’s quarterback, after a win over Tampa Bay — before segueing into louder screams of “Hein-ick-e!”

Had Benjamin St-Juste’s pick-six on the Vikings’ subsequent drive held up, screws might have been knocked loose from the decrepit stadium. But the second-year cornerback was flagged for pass interference, and then the Vikings marched to a score — but only three points, thanks to Kam Curl. The safety tackled Adam Thielen at the Washington 7-yard line to spare a touchdown and force Minnesota to settle for a 25-yard field goal that made it 17-10.

Still playing on the edge, Heinicke then threw a dart up the middle intended for Thomas — the right read, Rivera said, but the wrong type of throw.

“He might have been a little juiced up,” Rivera said of his quarterback. “He was charging forward and then tried to throw it. If he could’ve just brought it down, it’s a first down and we’re all going, ‘Wow.’ We’d have a seven-point lead, the ball’s at midfield, and we’re all feeling good about it.”

Safety Harrison Smith picked off the pass and moved 35 yards to the Washington 12-yard line. Two plays later, Cousins (22 for 40, 265 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, 81.8 rating) threw a 12-yard fade to running back Dalvin Cook in the corner of the end zone to tie the score at 17 with 7:46 remaining.

“The expectations for us are low, so going into this everything was gravy as far as everyone else was concerned,” Rivera said. “But I really believed we had a chance to win this football game. ... There were enough mistakes to go around for everybody.”

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Mistakes such as the seven of 10 third-down attempts the Commanders failed to convert. Mistakes such as safety Percy Butler’s contact with the ball in the end zone that turned Tress Way’s pinning punt into a touchback. Mistakes such as these in the final minutes.

First, the Commanders wasted 20 seconds just before the two-minute warning, spurning a timeout and a chance to stop the clock before the Vikings’ third-and-goal attempt from the 4-yard line. Then, after the defense held and forced a field goal attempt, Washington was penalized on the kick. Defensive tackle John Ridgeway made contact with the Vikings’ long snapper and was flagged for unnecessary roughness, giving Minnesota another set of downs from the 2.

In a pool report after the game, NFL senior vice president of officiating Walt Anderson clarified that Ridgeway was penalized for contacting the long snapper around the head and neck area right after the snap, when the snapper is considered defenseless.

The Vikings burned as much clock as they could before Greg Joseph knocked home a winning 28-yard field goal with 12 seconds remaining.

“No one is going to be harder on me than myself,” Heinicke said. “And it goes back to that interception for me. ... It hurts. The amount of stuff that this team kind of goes through and for them to come in every day and just focus on ball — you see it out there: The guys keep fighting. Against a really good team, to have them up right there and kind of give it way, it hurts.”

Blemishes aside, Heinicke has made a habit of taking games to the wire and invigorating his teammates with his scrappy play. But after team owners Daniel and Tanya Snyder announced this past week that they had retained an investment bank to explore a sale of the team, Sunday’s in-game excitement only temporarily masked the franchise’s turmoil.

In the parking lot, signs on the windshield of a truck read “BYE DAN.” In the stadium, some fans wore burgundy T-shirts with “Sell the Team” in gold — while standing in line to buy merchandise at the team store. And in the stadium’s south corner, a pocket of fans resumed a chant from previous weeks — “Sell the team! Sell the team!” — before calls for Heinicke drowned it out.

But the wild ride never stopped.

“A roller-coaster ride, man,” Rivera said of Heinicke’s three starts. “... It’s been well enough to give us a chance to win in two of the last three games, obviously. And we’ve got a big one coming up next week, so we’ll be geared up for that.”