The Washington Commanders (7-7-1) will host what is effectively a playoff game Sunday against the Cleveland Browns (6-9). The Commanders hold a half-game lead over Seattle, Detroit and Green Bay, which are all 7-8 and at home Sunday as well. If Washington wins, without accounting for other outcomes, its odds to snag the No. 7 seed in the NFC will be 49 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight; if it loses, they sink to just 7 percent.
Cleveland’s offense, which was a run-first juggernaut earlier in the year, has struggled since the return of quarterback Deshaun Watson in Week 13. Coach Kevin Stefanski has become more pass-heavy in what seems to be an effort to shake off the rust off Watson, who missed nearly two years while facing sexual misconduct allegations and an 11-game suspension.
Two of Washington’s highest-profile players, quarterback Carson Wentz and defensive end Chase Young, will make their first starts since returning from injuries. But the Commanders are also battling several injuries, with running back Antonio Gibson (knee/foot) out and several key contributors questionable.
“This is a playoff atmosphere,” Coach Ron Rivera said.
Run the dang ball
By any metric, Cleveland’s rush defense is among the NFL’s worst. The Browns’ front — with Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney on the edge and Jordan Elliott and Taven Bryan inside — seems to be much better at rushing the passer. But Washington will be without Gibson and will probably rely on a combination of power runners Brian Robinson Jr. and Jonathan Williams. Local fan favorite Jaret Patterson will also probably be elevated from the practice squad.
If Washington can run the ball effectively, it should help ease Wentz back into the starting role and give him a more advantageous formula than the pass-heavy one offensive coordinator Scott Turner used earlier in the season.
“It takes a little bit of the pressure off of him, not throwing,” Turner said Wednesday. “You never know how the game’s going to go; you know, we might have to get into that mode or whatever at some point. But being able to run the ball, having that set up the play action pass, I think that’s just stuff that’ll help him.”
Don’t let Watson get on track
In four games, Watson has been imprecise, completing 71 of 123 attempts (57.7 percent) for 703 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.
“He’s not going to come back in Day One and instantly be the player he’s capable of,” Commanders defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “I see a guy that’s improving. I think he’s got a great skill set.”
But the Browns have pass-catching weapons — tight end David Njoku and wide receivers Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones — and Washington could be susceptible. The Commanders have four defensive backs listed as questionable: Percy Butler (hip), Kam Curl (ankle), Benjamin St-Juste (ankle) and Christian Holmes (ankle).
Considering health, the importance of Washington’s defensive front might be magnified, especially if Watson continues trying to use his legs to extend plays. But Cleveland’s offensive line, one of the best in the league, promises to be challenging. Bill Callahan, the former Washington coach, leads the Browns’ line.
Avoid negative plays
In his return against San Francisco, Wentz consistently made quick, correct decisions to get the ball out to his playmakers. Coaches were encouraged, and if the run game can keep the offense on schedule, it will help open up throwing windows for Wentz. Several receivers, including Terry McLaurin, said they were excited because Wentz’s arm strength means every route is now live on every play.
One encouraging sign for Washington’s hopes to sustain its success from the fourth quarter last Saturday: Cleveland’s defense, coordinated by Joe Woods, is similar to San Francisco’s.
“They like to do the same types of things,” Turner said. They have some really good rushers, just like San Francisco has, personnel-wise. Some really good players in the secondary. … Denzel Ward is a top corner. But scheme-wise … it’s very close.”
In addition to the questionable defensive backs, Washington will be without Gibson, defensive end James Smith-Williams (concussion) and offensive lineman Saahdiq Charles (concussion). Young will start in place of Smith-Williams.
Clowney (concussion/illness), who was listed as questionable, is the only player on Cleveland’s injury report.