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The Washington Football Team dropped its former name, had a coach who faced cancer and benched its quarterback after four weeks this season. Washington wasn’t anyone’s pick to contend in the NFC East; it was more likely to compete for a top-five draft pick.
That’s why it’s surprising to see where the team is now: in control of the NFC East.
Washington (6-7) used defensive touchdowns to take over sole possession of the division with a 23-15 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. The defense ended the 49ers’ last drive with a stop on fourth-and-12 just inside midfield. Washington needed to excel, as the offense struggled all game and lost quarterback Alex Smith for the second half because of a strained calf.
Washington coach Ron Rivera said Smith’s leg remained tight after halftime, which is why he didn’t return, though he would have reentered in an emergency. Rivera said he wasn’t sure yet on Smith’s status for next week.
The game was played in Glendale, Arizona, because of coronavirus restrictions in California. With three games remaining, Washington has a one-game lead over the New York Giants (5-8). It needs to finish ahead of the Giants because New York swept the season series.
“We’re not done yet,” said rookie defensive end Chase Young, who scored a touchdown off a fumble recovery. “I like to think what would Kobe [Bryant] do? He wouldn’t be smiling. He’d put his head down and keep working until he achieved what he wanted to achieve … That’s the vibe of the team right now. We’re not satisfied.”
Washington has won four consecutive games, and two of its three remaining opponents (Carolina and Philadelphia) have losing records. It’s now set up to do what few would have expected a few weeks ago: give the NFC East a division champion with a winning record.
“We’re trying to talk about where we’re headed, not where we’ve been,” Rivera said. “We’re relevant in the conversation and we have to maintain and be humble.”
Washington has reached this point despite Rivera needing to undergo seven weeks of cancer treatments. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins was benched after four games, and his replacement, Kyle Allen, suffered a season-ending ankle injury four games later. That left the team with Smith, who had not played since Nov. 18, 2018, because of his broken fibula and tibia that required 17 surgeries.
Despite it all, Washington remained strong thanks to a defense that on Sunday showed why it has a promising future. Its young ends, Montez Sweat and Young, have played well all season.
But Young dominated against the 49ers. In the first half, he forced a fumble that led to a field goal, and on the ensuing possession, he returned a fumble 47 yards for a touchdown. He deflected one pass and batted down a key third-down pass in the fourth quarter.
Before entering his postgame video session with reporters, Young spoke with his mom, Carla, on the phone. He told her to put her phone on mute, but then he admitted that’s who was on the line. Young often talks about her and says she wants him to get sacks. He got one Sunday — and scored.
Young said he was gassed 10 yards into his return. His mom was, too. “Oh my gosh I was so worn out,” his mom said as Young held up his phone. “I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock. I said, ‘He knows how to pick that ball up and not fall on it,’ and he got it and kept trucking.”
Washington did not score an offensive touchdown Sunday. Rookie safety Kamren Curl, a seventh-round draft pick, returned a third-quarter interception 47 yards for a touchdown.
Washington needed the defensive scores because its offense couldn’t generate much of an attack. It was missing running back Antonio Gibson, and then Smith played only in the first half because of the calf injury. Smith completed 8 of 19 passes for 57 yards.
Haskins replaced him and helped lead a field goal drive on his first possession, but that was all the offense could muster. Haskins nearly threw an interception late in the game, but the call was overturned on replay. Haskins completed 7 of 12 passes for 51 yards.
But this was a game about the defense. The front, with five first-round picks, pressured 49ers QB Nick Mullens most of the day. That group is the reason Washington was optimistic about its future — beyond 2020. But it’s also why Washington is in position to capture a division title one year after going 3-13.
“To control our destiny, we’re leading the way right now and that feels great,” running back J.D. McKissic said. “This team is fighting hard. We believed when no one else believed.”
But with three games left, and only a one-game lead, Washington can’t afford to believe this race is over.
“It feels good because we’re seeing flashes of what we talked about early in the season,” Young said. “The only thing [we have to do is] keep going. We can’t let up.”