The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kendall Fuller’s interception lets Commanders survive for third straight win

Commanders 19, Falcons 13

Cornerback Kendall Fuller (29) is surrounded by his teammates after his late interception. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
8 min

For weeks, Ron Rivera has tried to temper the enthusiasm. His Washington Commanders shocked the unbeaten Philadelphia Eagles on the road — and then their coach cautioned that they hadn’t achieved anything yet. The Commanders followed with a convincing win at the Houston Texans — and then he reminded them that they still hadn’t fully arrived.

Rivera, a self-described optimist, has long preached caution while trying to revive Washington on the field, a task now deep into its third season. But there rarely has been a better reminder than the game itself. On Sunday afternoon, in a steady rain at FedEx Field, the Atlanta Falcons served up another warning.

Rivera’s emerging Commanders notched a 19-13 win that easily could’ve been a loss because of their mistakes — costly penalties, a key turnover, missed tackles, busted coverages, communication failures and stalled drives. But unlike earlier this season, when miscues normally resulted in losses, the Commanders’ scrappy play — not to mention the improvement of their secondary and running game — preserved their third straight victory and moved them into the seventh and final NFC playoff spot at 7-5.

Defensive tackle Daron Payne batted a pass in the red zone, and cornerback Kendall Fuller dived for the ball in the end zone, marking his second interception in as many weeks and the Commanders’ 11th takeaway in their past six games. Rookie running back Brian Robinson Jr. notched his first 100-yard rushing game (he finished with 105) to help Washington rack up a season-high 176 yards on the ground, and he added a 14-yard touchdown catch.

Rivera notched his 100th victory (including the playoffs) as an NFL head coach, and the Commanders earned their sixth victory in seven games, which Washington hadn’t achieved in a decade.

Still, what could have been gave Rivera pause.

“Absolutely, but it’s also about sticking to what you do — and that’s really what kind of got us through,” he said. “... We won this game, but we also survived it.”

The urgency that had become a signature of Washington’s swarming defense was missing until the Commanders preserved the win in the closing seconds. After all, the same crowd that came to its feet after Fuller’s interception had gasped when Taylor Heinicke’s passes sailed into double and sometimes triple coverage.

Takeaways from Sunday's win

“Wake up, Heinicke!” one fan yelled from Section 208 after he launched a third-quarter pass that was nearly intercepted. “Wake up!”

Washington was awake — if only just enough to come through in the clutch and avoid a painful loss to the Falcons (5-7).

Heinicke completed 14 of 23 passes for 138 yards, two touchdowns and an interception for an 88.7 rating — a line that belied his erratic play. And Washington’s defense was gashed for 167 rushing yards.

But Heinicke’s early touchdown pass to Robinson and his reliance on the running game kept the offense relatively efficient, and the defense lessened the blow of Atlanta’s chunk plays with some significant stops.

Special teams contributed its share, too. After Fuller’s interception, Tress Way, the Commanders’ Pro Bowl-worthy punter, sealed the win when he was knocked down for a running-into-the-kicker penalty that yielded a first down. That play followed a 45-yard beauty in the third quarter that was downed at the Atlanta 5-yard line.

“Totally on purpose,” he joked. “. . . In pregame warmups, I hit a couple, and they would just spin really fast because the grass was really wet, and I was like, ‘All right, I might be on to something.’ So Jeremy Reaves, he comes up and asks, ‘Are you going to flip this across the field?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I think so.’ ”

But Way wasn’t the only player to come through Sunday. In the locker room after, Robinson received the game ball from Rivera and told his teammates they deserved the credit for the way they supported him in August, when he was shot twice during an armed robbery attempt in Washington.

Robinson’s downhill running style intrigued the Commanders ahead of the draft, and now he’s making an impact by shedding tackles and picking up yards after contact.

“It is just a special moment to have the opportunity to be able to do that and to do it after everything that’s been going on this year,” Robinson said. “I’ve been patient with it, just continued to stick to it. ... Today was a good day on the ground probably because of the way I balled.”

Svrluga: Commanders have found a fragile and frightening but winning formula

But many of Washington’s big plays were masked by bigger mistakes.

There was the face-mask penalty on rookie cornerback Christian Holmes, who started in place of Benjamin St-Juste (ankle), that turned a 15-yard run into a 20-yard play and put the Falcons at the Washington 5-yard line in the second quarter. The Falcons, who had 60 rushing yards on that drive, capped it with a four-yard pass from Marcus Mariota to a wide-open MyCole Pruitt in the back corner of the end zone as Washington’s defense appeared befuddled. That gave the Falcons a 10-7 lead.

Then there was the interception by Heinicke, whose mistake squandered a critical fourth-and-one stop by the defense and ended the Commanders’ chances of taking a halftime lead.

“I was trying to make a play,” he said. “It was a boneheaded decision. Presnap, I thought it was man [coverage], so I thought I had [wide receiver Jahan Dotson] on the deep over route. And they kind of bailed out to a deep cover-three, and they kept on getting depth, and I threw it right to the guy. It was an awful decision.”

Lucky for the Commanders, the Falcons fell short, too: Younghoe Koo’s 58-yard field goal attempt was short, and the teams headed to halftime tied. But among Heinicke’s best traits is his short memory.

Washington turned back to the running game on its next drive, and the backs helped Heinicke to the 16-yard line before he found tight end John Bates in the end zone to put Washington ahead. But a mistake followed then, too: Joey Slye, who has been clutch in recent weeks, launched his extra-point attempt wide right, keeping the Commanders’ lead at 16-10.

Atlanta responded with a pair of chunk plays — a 14-yard catch and a 21-yard run — before the drive stalled. Koo’s 48-yard field goal brought Atlanta within 16-13.

Throughout Washington’s run with Heinicke as its starter — the Commanders are 5-1 under him after Sunday’s win — Rivera’s praise has almost always included a caveat. The team is winning. The players rally around him. The lulls of the early season have dissipated into a thrilling run that could send Washington to the playoffs. But it won’t come without anxiety.

Heinicke plays with a reckless abandon that at times teeters on foolish. His safety net has been Washington’s defense and, lately, its revived running game, facets that have helped form an identity for this team.

“I like the toughness, the grit,” Rivera said. “Sometimes we kind of feel our way through some things early on, and once we kind of get a sense, the guys hunker down.”

Commanders RB Brian Robinson Jr. racks up big yards and wears a big hat

But Washington can’t shake a persistent problem: finishing. The Commanders settled for field goals on two drives Sunday, including an 11-play surge that sputtered early in the fourth quarter because of a pass interference penalty on wideout Curtis Samuel. Slye capped it with a 45-yard field goal that expanded Washington’s lead to 19-13.

The defense needed less than two minutes to get off the field, thanks to a sack by defensive end Montez Sweat, but Washington’s offense returned to the sideline even more quickly after a three-and-out. The Falcons had more than five minutes to put together the game-winning drive, which they nearly did.

Atlanta wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus turned a short catch into a 45-yard gain just before the two-minute warning, and an offside penalty on Sweat gave the Falcons a free first down at the 2-yard line.

But two plays later, when Mariota dropped back looking for a touchdown target, Payne raised his arm and tipped the pass, sending the ball wobbling toward the end zone.

“I knew it was tipped and I was like, ‘Please, someone get it,’ ” safety Kam Curl said. “ ‘Someone on our team get it.’ ”

When the ball landed in Fuller’s arms, his teammates swarmed him to celebrate another scrappy victory — one that helped put all four NFC East teams in playoff position with six weeks left.

“It was definitely tough,” Sweat said. “They definitely tested us, but I mean, we got the dub.”