EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Terry McLaurin didn’t know what to think. The overtime clock expired, and slowly the players began to saunter off the field, but fans remained in the stands, perhaps a bit confused. Maybe they were waiting for finality that would never come.
After squandering an early lead and rallying late to force overtime, the Commanders settled for a 20-20 tie with the New York Giants on Sunday afternoon, leaving the players uncertain and unfulfilled after a physical back-and-forth matchup that left each team with unfinished business.
“It’s weird,” left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said. “Out of nine years [in the NFL], I’ve never had a tie.”
The outcome — Washington’s first tie since 2016 — kept the Giants (7-4-1) a half-game ahead of the Commanders (7-5-1) in the NFC East and set up a critical rematch in Week 15 at FedEx Field following Washington’s bye next Sunday.
Coach Ron Rivera admitted that he, too, was a bit unsure what to make of a game that, score aside, had the traits of so many Commanders games this season — a close one that came down to just a few plays and the final seconds.
But unlike some of their recent wins, the Commanders made enough mistakes to raise doubts about a potential playoff push. After months of preaching and roster finagling, Rivera said last week that his team appeared to be coming together as he envisions. Players were buying in, and his team had an identity, with a scrappy, run-first offense bolstered by a menacing defense.
After winning six of their previous seven games, the Commanders were clicking, and the next step was to find consistency — and perhaps make their close wins a little less anxiety-inducing. Rivera got something else Sunday: a reminder of the risk-reward dilemma of his quarterback.
Taylor Heinicke, the catalyst behind Washington’s revival this season, was both a liability and his team’s last hope Sunday, taking five sacks and fumbling twice (losing one of them) while going 27 for 41 for 275 yards and two touchdowns for a 101.2 passer rating.
Rivera often has couched Heinicke’s impressive plays by acknowledging his risky throws that become difference-makers — such as his untimely interception late in a loss to the Minnesota Vikings or his deep throws to McLaurin, whose savvy route-running and contested-catch ability have made him a reliable target.
On Sunday, many of his passes were high, including one in the first quarter that flew over the head of 6-foot-6 tight end Logan Thomas in the end zone and a deep one up the middle in the fourth that flew over wideout Curtis Samuel and into the hands of a diving Giants defender — who dropped it before hitting the turf.
But with just under three minutes remaining in regulation and his team down a touchdown, “Riverboat Ron” decided to go for it on fourth and four at the Washington 27-yard line. Heinicke scrambled left and hit Samuel on the run for a 20-yard completion, then found him again for a 25-yard catch that set up the tying touchdown. Rookie wideout Jahan Dotson took a short pass up the middle and spun around a pair of defenders to find the end zone from 28 yards, capping an eight-play, 90-yard drive. Joey Slye nailed the extra point to make it 20-20.
“That’s kind of him,” Rivera said of Heinicke. “He’s going to take what’s in front of him, then he’s going to take a shot here. Then he’s going to try to make something happen, which he did. Because that’s who he is, that gave us a chance.”
But missed opportunities may be what Rivera remembers most about Sunday’s game: the missed blocks, the missed tackles, the penalties and the overthrown passes.
The Commanders’ star defensive tackle duo thwarted the Giants’ first two drives; Jonathan Allen stripped the ball from quarterback Daniel Jones on a run near midfield for a fumble that linebacker Jamin Davis recovered, and Daron Payne sacked Jones for a loss of nine. Both plays led to points for Washington — a 21-yard field goal by Slye and a touchdown by McLaurin, who caught a short pass on a shallow crossing route, then tossed aside a defender to find nothing but 19 yards of green space and the end zone ahead of him.
But the Commanders’ 10-0 lead would fade as their mistakes piled up.
Washington’s running defense was picked apart by a familiar culprit only a week after it allowed 167 rushing yards in a win over the Atlanta Falcons. Jones, who ran for 74 and 95 yards in previous meetings with the Commanders, collected 56 of the Giants’ 116 rushing yards in the first half, taking advantage of missed tackles and poor gap-fitting by Washington’s defense. He finished with a team-high 71 yards on the ground to go with 200 passing yards and a touchdown. Saquon Barkley added 63 rushing yards and a touchdown for the Giants.
Washington’s smallest errors came with big costs, as they typically do. Safety Kam Curl, one of the Commanders’ most consistent and impactful defenders, was penalized for holding and missed a tackle on separate plays that helped set up two Giants field goals.
“The one I think really still kind of hurts us a little bit is we got a sack-fumble in the opening [drive] of the third quarter,” Rivera said. “We gave them position to score, and he scored a touchdown.”
Only 40 seconds into the second half, with the score tied at 13, tight end John Bates struggled to fend off Giants linebacker Azeez Ojulari, who moved around the left side of the line and swiped at the ball as Heinicke reared back to throw from the 17-yard line. The ball wobbled to the ground and was recovered by Oshane Ximines, who also fumbled after being tackled by Heinicke.
Ojulari recovered it at the Washington 20, and five plays later, the Giants were in the end zone: Wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins tripped up rookie cornerback Christian Holmes on a short route at the goal line to catch a six-yard pass from Jones in the end zone to give New York a 20-13 lead.
“We had opportunities to try to win that game, honestly,” McLaurin said. “Offensively, I think we can do a better job of not shooting ourselves in the foot with some of the penalties and negative plays and just being better in the red zone.”
All three phases contributed to the mistakes.
Antonio Gibson struggled with the kickoff after Hodgins’s touchdown; he recovered and was dropped at the 5-yard line to avoid another disaster.
From there, penalties by Washington’s tight ends created their own havoc. Thomas was flagged for a false start and an illegal block in the back, costing Washington 15 yards before Heinicke was strip-sacked again. Center Tyler Larsen recovered the ball, but Washington ended up punting. The drive lasted eight minutes, but the Commanders made it only to their 43-yard line.
On the next Washington drive, rookie tight end Cole Turner was called for holding, again setting the offense back before Heinicke was sacked (his fourth) and Slye’s 52-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right.
For the game, Washington amassed seven penalties for 56 yards. And Heinicke seemed to take many punishing hits.
But then late in regulation, he did what he has done so well since he arrived in 2020: He created magic when all hope seemed to be lost.
“We feel very comfortable in the two-minute offense,” McLaurin said. “We do a pretty good job at it, so I was like: ‘This is what we’re built for. We’ve done this plenty of times; let’s go do it again.’ ”
After Washington tied it in the final minutes, its defense got off the field quickly, shutting down a few deep pass attempts to force the Giants to punt. Defensive back Danny Johnson, who earlier sacked Jones on a blitz, took over at cornerback and held his own in coverage on back-to-back targets before the defense trotted off the field, having given Heinicke and Co. 77 seconds to win it. Three incompletions led to a punt.
When regulation ended and the extra period began, Washington’s defense picked up where it left off, stuffing Barkley for a loss of three yards before Payne picked up his second sack. After Washington and New York traded ineffective possessions, the Commanders were at their 10-yard line with 96 seconds left. Heinicke was sacked at the 2, and the Commanders went three-and-out.
The thrill of a late rally dissipated. Graham Gano, on the Giants’ last gasp, tried a 58-yard field goal that fell short, leaving Washington unbeaten Sunday but still unsatisfied.
“I feel like we had multiple opportunities to finish it,” Heinicke said. “... So, yeah, ‘unfinished’ is a great word for that game.”