The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Commanders needed a decisive win. All they got were more ‘what-ifs.’

Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke lays on the turf after being on third down during the fourth quarter of the game at MetLife Stadium. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — At some point, the Washington Commanders have to grow out of their plucky “keep it close” persona, which can take them only so far. Real NFL contenders have a bigger identity — they’re more than just close. They separate themselves, especially in late-season games with playoff implications. The Commanders are merely close to being a good team, and on Sunday, close didn’t get them anything but an indeterminate tie with the New York Giants, a result that fed their ambition about as much as cold oatmeal.

A tie going into a bye week? What was anyone supposed to do with that, except spit it out?

“It’s kind of weird. A win or a loss, you know what that is,” wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. But with a tie, “it’s like, what do you do next?”

What they will do next is evaluate a strangely stymied 20-20 result that was less a final score than a … postponement.

Commanders and Giants have unfinished business after a 20-20 tie

“I wasn’t sure how to address them,” Coach Ron Rivera said of his postgame speech.

Last week, Rivera delivered a disquisition on how close he believed his team was to a breakthrough. He was convinced a handful of plays could have made a huge difference — a missed block here, a better throw there, and maybe instead of those near-thing losses to the Tennessee Titans (by a score of 21-17) and Minnesota Vikings (20-17), they’d be front-runners now for a spot in the playoffs instead of jockeying with the Giants for the sixth or seventh spot in the NFC.

“When you look at it from our lens … you sit there and say, God, we are so close,” Rivera observed. “We really are. Well, I’m being very sincere about that, just how close we were. We had a chance to beat Tennessee, and we didn’t. I wanted to throw up after that. We could have beat Minnesota. My stomach turned. That’s close. I mean, those are two games that you sit there and say, God, you win those two and now look at where you are. You know? But I know it’s what-ifs and buts.”

So how to turn the what-ifs and buts into decisive wins?

“The next step would be to score a few more points and not allow a few more points, and instead of winning games by one score, maybe you win a few more by two or three scores,” Rivera said. “I think that’s the next evolution.”

Score separation was what the Commanders came to MetLife Stadium seeking, and they didn’t get it. Instead, they got more of those what-ifs and buts. What if quarterback Taylor Heinicke hadn’t been strip-sacked at his 17-yard line early in the third quarter to hand the Giants an easy score? What if defensive back Christian Holmes hadn’t bitten so hard on a fake by Isaiah Hodgins that he let the Giants wide receiver come open in the end zone by two full strides?

What if the Commanders ever became a truly predatory offense? Instead, they had flurries and then inexplicably grinding lulls. Heinicke, as he ever does, showed flashes of elite athleticism and huge audacity, but he also whiplashed his team with mistakes.

In the third quarter, Washington went so run-heavy, trying to wear the Giants down with barrels up the middle, that it had an eight-minute drive that never got to midfield. Then, just when you were tempted to write the Commanders off, Heinicke revived his legend with that fourth-down conversion with less than three minutes to play, when he shoulder-shimmied out of pressure, rolled left, then threw across his body to find Curtis Samuel for 20 yards to keep the game-tying drive alive.

But in overtime they had just one vaguely threatening series — that stalled at the New York 41-yard line. “If we get maybe eight more yards,” Heinicke said, trailing off.

Their defining moment became the missed protection call by Heinicke near his own goal line late in the overtime period that led to his blindsiding by Kayvon Thibodeaux, who drove him into the turf like he was laying pipe. Somehow, Heinicke gutsily held on to the ball, didn’t fumble or take a safety to lose the game. But it clearly cost him trust and assertiveness on his own sideline.

With Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, Commanders may have NFL’s best DT duo

On third and 10 at the Commanders 10, Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner elected to play it safe. They couldn’t afford for Heinicke to miss another read or make one of those high overthrows that could get batted around. “We’ve got to get some movement. We’ve got to get away from our own goal line,” is how Rivera explained his thinking.

They got some movement — a little. They handed it to Antonio Gibson up the middle for five yards and punted, essentially conceding the tie, which they relied on the defense to preserve.

“It’s really kind of who we are; we play close games,” Rivera said afterward. “We try to run the ball, keep it close, see what happens. If we can eliminate some of the missed things …”

Maybe the Commanders can clean up enough little things during the bye to create some separation, enough for a more decisive result when they meet the Giants again in two weeks at the start of the tough December stretch drive toward the playoffs. But despite their wonderful midseason surge, there is really no guarantee yet that this outfit will be a significant upgrade from all the other Washington teams that have flirted with the playoffs over the years but wound up 8-8. One thing is clear: It’s going to be very close.