After reviewing the tape of the Washington Commanders’ 20-20 tie with the New York Giants, Coach Ron Rivera, ever the optimist, said he believes his team is “close” — and if it can capitalize on its missed opportunities and clean up its mistakes, it will be able to compete with some of the NFL’s more prolific offenses.
He cited the Commanders’ 90-yard scoring drive that started before the two-minute warning as a positive sign. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who had struggled in spurts throughout the game, threw a 20-yard pass to wideout Curtis Samuel on fourth and four, found Samuel again for a 25-yard completion, then turned to rookie Jahan Dotson, who took a short pass and spun his way into the end zone for the game-tying touchdown from 28 yards.
“To score the touchdown kind of shows what we can do if we can get the ball in the hands of the playmakers,” Rivera said Monday during a video conference with reporters.
Washington’s habit of turning games into fourth-quarter nail-biters has become part of its identity — an identity wrapped around its quarterback. Rarely is it pretty with Heinicke. But in tight games — and most games have been close — the Commanders can never be counted out, even in the final seconds.
That is, in part, why Rivera said he’s sticking with Heinicke.
“This is who we are. I mean, that’s how we play,” the coach said. “We’re running the ball right now. We’re controlling the time of possession. We’re keeping our defense fresh. There’s some things, obviously, that could help. I think right now, for where we are and who we are, I think we’re in a good spot.”
Since becoming the starter in Week 7, Heinicke has led Washington on a 5-1-1 run, and the outcomes of three of those games — the win in Indianapolis, the loss to Minnesota and the tie with the Giants — were decided by scoring drives in the final two minutes of regulation.
Heinicke’s late-game heroics have turned Washington into a playoff contender despite its 1-4 start, but the Heinicke magic often comes with mistakes — such as high throws and misreads that lead to interceptions. On Sunday, the Giants sacked Heinicke five times, and he fumbled twice, losing one of them.
“It all wasn’t just Taylor,” Rivera said. “He does what he does. He plays the way he plays. I just think you take the good with the bad. But I think that’s true for a lot of quarterbacks. I don’t think there’s a whole bunch of guys that are out there that aren’t making mistakes every now and then. I was pleased with the things [Heinicke] did, and I was pleased with the way the guys played.”
When asked about the possibility of turning to Carson Wentz, Rivera said he feels comfortable with Heinicke as the starter. When Wentz is activated from injured reserve, he’ll be the primary backup.
Back in the spotlight
Recent success and the tight race for playoff spots in the NFC have landed the Commanders a prime-time slot in Week 15. When they return from their bye, they will host the Giants on “Sunday Night Football” on Dec. 18.
“I'm pretty fired up for our guys, I really am, just because we have guys that deserve some exposure,” Rivera said. “This is about as big a stage we've been on since the Monday night game or the Thursday night game we played.”
The Commanders are 19-18-1 all time on “Sunday Night Football.” Their most recent appearance came last December, when they lost to the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. (That was the game when Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen fought on the sideline.) It has been five years since Washington played on “Sunday Night Football” at home (a 2017 win over the Raiders) and nine years since it hosted the Giants on a Sunday night (a Week 13 loss in 2013).
Might Chase Young make his vaunted return in prime time?
Washington’s third-year defensive end has missed 21 games while recovering from a knee injury he suffered last season, and though he has been medically cleared and is back on the 53-man roster, he has been inactive for the past two games.
“We’re playing pretty well on the defensive front, [so] the need to get him on the field hasn’t been that you got to have him out there, we need him, it’s a must,” Rivera said. “This is one of those things that, because our guys are playing well, we can get him back when he’s 100 percent ready to roll.”
Young has to be confident enough in his surgically repaired knee to use it as he normally would in a game. Gauging his readiness is difficult, however, because practice can’t replicate game situations — especially late in the season, when contact is limited to keep players fresh.
“It’s just him being comfortable and … continuing to work on that, continuing to build it up,” Rivera said. “Just because … this was not just a normal ACL [injury]. There was a little bit more involved, and I think that’s one thing everybody’s got to understand. Not everybody is going to come back in nine months, 10 months.”
Rivera insinuated that even when Young returns, he may need more time to get back to his previous level of play.
“[Giants running back] Saquon Barkley is a great example,” Rivera said. “The young man came back from his knee [injury] last year, and he was average. Now, you take a look at him, and he’s more than average; he’s pretty special. And it’s good to see him back on the football field playing that way. It takes more than 12 months, 13 months, 14 months.”