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The 5 O’Clock Club: With wins over Seahawks & Steelers, NY and WAS end talk that NFC East can’t beat playoff teams

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

Washington Football Team v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The 5 o’clock club is published from time to time during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.


Feelin’ good

I want to suggest that we all take a day to just enjoy this win. We can talk about mistakes, bad plays, bad refs and roster holes tomorrow, but for 24 hours or so, I, personally, just want to bask in the joy.

I hope you’ll join me.

Winning big games

Make no mistake about it; this was a great win.

Here’s what I wrote in my Four Keys to the Game article on Sunday:

In my opinion, [turnover differential] is the single biggest factor in this game. If Pittsburgh is +1 in this metric, I believe they win the game; if Washington is +3 in this metric, I believe they win. Anything in between is likely a close game decided by my fourth key factor.

Key No. 4 - Stamina - play the full 60 minutes

The Football Team has been better playing in the second half of games than the first half of games this year. It can be frustrating to play from behind, and I’m not advocating that the team not play well in the first half, but I think that being a second-half team may be an advantage in this game if it is still competitive at halftime.

The Steelers rely on grinding out wins through tough defense and relentless pressure. It is often Pittsburgh that is the mentally tougher and physically stronger team in the 4th quarter.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

However, Ron Rivera has stressed conditioning, mental toughness and teamwork since his arrival in Washington. The Steelers are playing on 5 days’ rest while Washington has gone 11 days between contests. There’s good reason to believe that Washington can win the last 15-minute stanza against a Steelers team that is ranked 2nd in scoring defense, but just 12th in scoring offense in the 4th quarter of games this season.

If the game is close at the end of the 3rd quarter, Rivera’s team needs to use what they’ve learned in the first 11 games of the season to close this one out with a winning effort down the stretch.

I feel like my pre-game comments were proven out by events. Rivera’s team proved that it was tougher. The players showed that they could not only stretch a winning streak to 3 games; not only could they beat a winning team; they showed that they could beat an 11-0 team on the road.

Of course, winning the game was important for keeping pace with the Giants, who won a road game of their own against the previously 8-3 Seattle Seahawks. With the two upset wins, the Giants and the Washington Football Team continue to re-write the narrative of the 2020 season.

Initially, this season was supposed to be a two-team race between Philly and Dallas, with New York and Washington expected to be irrelevant punching bags. When the Eagles and Cowboys both stumbled out of the gate, and then fell apart, it was the entire division that was considered irrelevant. Someone would have to win and go to the playoffs, but it would be ultimately futile, everyone said, as the eventual champion would have a losing record and would be knocked out of the playoffs by wildcard team in the first round.

Suddenly, after Sunday and Monday, those assumptions don’t look so solid.

The Seahawks are tied atop the NFC West at 8-4. If the playoffs were seeded based on today’s standings, they would be a wild card team and play their first game on the road against...you guessed it... the New York Giants.

The Steelers, at 11-1, are tied with the Chiefs for the best record in the NFL. Their only loss came at the hands of the WFT on Monday afternoon at Heinz Field.

Washington and New York have proven this week that they can play and beat contenders for the AFC and NFC Championships on the road.

Also, that assumption about the division champ having a losing record doesn’t look so much like a slam dunk either at this point. Going 3-1 to finish at .500 isn’t out of the question for either team after what they accomplished on Sunday and Monday. In fact, mathematically, both NY and Washington have the opportunity to achieve winning seasons by winning out. With 4 weeks left in the regular season, Washington is only one game behind in the race for the final NFC wildcard spot. Crazier things have happened.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself.

I simply want to point out that these were two legitimate big-time wins by the co-NFC East leaders this week, and that they continue to help change the national narrative. New York and Washington now have to be taken seriously as potential playoff teams.

Roulez les bon temps!

Washington Football Team v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Today is a day to talk about the good things in life.

I have to admit, I had expected Antonio Gibson to be such a huge factor in the Washington offense in any winning scenario that, when I saw him go out injured early in the first quarter, I thought that might doom the chance to do enough offensively to win the game. But a lot of players on the offense stepped up and played well.

A few of them had career games.

Logan Thomas

I’m not sure who could still be doubting Thomas (yes...intentional).

As has been true for a number of games now, the tight end’s raw statistics don’t do justice to his impact on the game.

The box score will say he had a fumble recovery. It won’t communicate how critical the recovery was in the situation, or the fact that — before Thomas flew in and pulled the ball into his body — the recovery looked like it was gonna be an easy one for the Steelers.

The box score will say that Logan Thomas got 12 yards on a 3rd & 13 play, failing to pick up the first down. It won’t show the incredible effort given by Thomas to beat tacklers to reach the line-to-gain (not for the first time this season). It won’t show the fact that the officials failed to reverse the call on the field and award the first down despite clear and obvious video evidence.

Washington Football Team v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The box score will do justice to Thomas with the fact that he had 9 receptions on 9 targets 98 yards and a touchdown. Those who couldn’t see the game, however, may not realize how tough some of those catches were on Monday in Pittsburgh.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I think that we can all safely say that, despite one or two dropped passes this season, Logan Thomas has arrived as a legitimate NFL tight end. If you haven’t been keeping track, he’s been blocking pretty well, in previous games he has picked up some crucial first downs taking snaps from center, thrown a 28-yard pass as the key play on a touchdown drive, and... oh yeah... in 12 games he’s caught 43 passes for 426 yards and 5 touchdowns.

Cam Sims

Heading into this season, Cam Sims was starting to feel like one of those many players that fans love in the off-season and pre-season who never seem to do much more than get time on the practice squad, a couple of partial-seasons as injury fill-in and finish their career with 11 receptions for 89 yards.

Well, put that narrative on the shelf, too. Cam Sims has officially arrived.

Today’s tally was 5 catches for 92 yards, and he had individual receptions of 30 yards, 31 yards (on 3rd & 14 in the shadow of our own goal posts), and 29 yards (on a 3rd & 4 play on the drive that ended in Hopkins’ go ahead field goal).

The Game Ball

Sims got the game ball that I thought was gonna go to Logan Thomas, but it was well-deserved. Without Cam Sims stepping up to replace lost production from Gibson’s injury, Washington doesn’t win this game. That becomes obvious when you read through the play-by-play of the game drives. Sims was a force in the second half against the Steelers.

This wasn’t Silky’s first big game of his career — he had 3 catches for 110 yards against the Giants in Week 9 — but his contribution on Monday afternoon was arguably the strongest of his career, and he was an absolute difference-maker for the 20-point second-half offensive burst that enabled the Football Team to unseat Pittburgh from atop the NFL standings.

JD McKissic

I can’t run from the truth. I wasn’t impressed when I first read that Washington signed McKissic in free agency back in March. Prior to training camp, I didn’t think he’d make the team.

When it became clear that Love wasn’t healthy and that Guice wasn’t gonna be around, I figured that McKissic would play a very limited role with the offense on 3rd downs, and that he’d be a footnote in the 2020 season — a guy who got 4 touches a game and was instantly forgotten.

From early in the season until now, I’ve become a bigger and bigger McKissic fan. For a month or more I’ve been counting him as part of a really dynamic 1-2 punch along with Antonio Gibson. I enjoy watching McKissic play now as much as I used to enjoy watching Chris Thompson, and my confidence in what McKissic can do with the ball is sky high.

My only issue for most of the first half of the Steelers game was that I was screaming at the TV to get #41 on the field...we needed him.

He did see a lot of action in the second half, and Scott Turner used him to get some much-needed yardage in some critical spots. I have to say, I was puzzled, though, when Turner used Barber extensively in the 2nd quarter in favor of McKissic but then put McKissic in the game when it was goal-to-go inside Pittsburgh’s 5 yard line. It was like he got their jersey numbers mixed up in his head or something.

But from the time that Turner put Barber in for the goal line plays (he scored) onward, the use of the running backs seemed rational and #41 played well.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

McKissic finished the game with 10 receptions for 70 yards — easily the best game of the season for him, and, in a career where he has never had more than 34 catches or more than 266 yards in a season before, I’m guessing it was the best game of his 5-year career.

He did fumble the ball once (giving Logan Thomas the chance to be the hero by recovering it) but he also got two first-downs on the same drive, the one that resulted in the Logan Thomas touchdown catch.

He also had two catches for 13 yards and a first down conversion on the next drive that ended with the go-ahead field goal.

No doubt, the combination of McKissic and Gibson is better than McKissic alone, but on a day when Gibson was out of the game early and Peyton Barber averaged just 1.6 yards per carry, McKissic found a way to help the offense in the third and fourth quarters.

Alex Smith

I’m not trying to start a fight here — really, I’m not. Like I said at the top, we can argue about the roster issues tomorrow; today should be a celebration.

I realize that a lot of Washington fans aren’t Smith fans. I saw the first-half comments in the game thread about Alex being the reason the burgundy & gold wouldn’t win the game.

I know that a huge chunk of the fan base may admire Alex Smith’s determination in returning from injury at the same time that they wished he would retire now.

I know a lot of Washington fans don’t like the way Alex Smith plays.

I’m not one of them. I’m an Alex Smith fan.

I thought it was the right move when the team acquired Alex Smith prior to the 2018 season. I watch him play and I think he does the smart things that set the team up to win.

Of course, he’s not playing razzle-dazzle football. He plays careful football. He makes mistakes like everyone, but most of what he does is calculated to set the team up to win, and more often than not, that’s the result.

Here’s what Ron Rivera had to say about Alex Smith after the game:

[Alex] was patient and he took what they were giving us and that was probably the biggest thing. I really thought [OC Scott Turner] did a nice job with the play calling in terms of just putting Alex in position to take what they were giving us and we did. We were very patient. Couple times we took a couple shots, but the biggest thing is we were patient and that’s the most important thing.

Alex was 6-4 as a starter for Washington in 2018. He’s 3-1 as a starter this season. On Monday afternoon, he went up against the #1 defense in the league and led the WFT to 23 points. That’s only the 4th time in 12 games that Pitt has given up more than 21 points.

Here’s Alex talking about the challenge of playing the Steelers defense:

We knew there were going to be some tough patches and be able to take it one play at a time and not get frustrated and not make the mistake that this team’s kind of feasted on. I really [felt good about] that drive before half when we were able to kind of finally get some rhythm, get some tempo going, really thought like we had an opportunity. There were a couple plays there I wish I had back, really felt like we could have had seven instead of the field goal, but it was what we needed...to kind of get ourselves going — to get the points before half and give us some confidence knowing we were getting the ball coming out for the second half.

The Washington offense didn’t turn the ball over at all — one of the hallmarks of Alex Smith led attack — against a Steelers team that was averaging 2.1 takeaways per game.

Alex plays a smart, careful game. He did it again on Monday and led the team to victory.

Washington Football Team v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Alex Smith is not the most physically gifted quarterback in the NFL, especially since the leg injury, but he’s one hell of a leader and the players around him, like Logan Thomas, Cam Sims and JD McKissic, seem to play better football because he’s on the field with them.

What I love about Alex Smith is his intelligent play, leadership and ability to win. The Pittsburgh game was another good outing for Smith. Statistically, he finished 31/46 (67.3%) for 296 yards and a touchdown. But, by far, the most significant thing about Alex’s role in the game was his confident demeanor and ability to get the players around him to do what was necessary to secure the win. Unlike many others, I see Smith as a consistent winner, and see that as his greatest contribution to the team.

The D E F E N S E

You can find some plays where the Washington defense got beaten by the Steelers offense, but, taking the game as whole cloth, this was an incredible performance against the league’s 6th ranked scoring offense. The defense gave up a 50-yard TD pass in the second quarter, but held the Steelers to 17 total points and just 3 in the second half.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I know a lot of people wanted to see the team blitzing to pressure Ben, and expected the front 4 to do more statistically; in particular the fact that there were no sacks by the defense seemed to concern a lot of folks. Personally, I didn’t expect any sacks in this game, and I felt that the team’s best chance to win was to avoid the blitz and play cover-and-tackle against Pittsburgh’s short passing game.

There were some missed tackles and there were some penalties, but aside from James Washington’s big touchdown, the defensive scheme was sound. Similar to my comments about Alex Smith on offense, the defense doesn’t need to fill up the box score with sacks to play a good game. The Steelers were incapable of running against the Washington defense; they rushed 14 times for 21 yards. That meant that the Pittsburgh offense consisted of Ben playing pitch and catch with his talented receivers. He threw 53 passes. He completed just 33 (62%) at an average of 5.8 yards per attempt, and Jon Bostic got an interception to pretty much seal the win.

Of course, there was the impressive goal line stand where Washington’s D successfully defended 6 inches of grass and denied the Steelers an easy touchdown on a short field after the Washington offense was unable to convert on a 4th & 1 play.

This was a team win led by the defense, and it was a true win by the defense as a unit, but if I had to pick one player to highlight, it would be Montez Sweat, who seemed to have the best game in a group of players who all had good games. It was Chase Young who made the tackle on 4th & goal from the half-yard line, but it was Sweat who deflected the ball that ended up as a Bostic interception on the first play from scrimmage following the two-minute warning.

Come to think of it, I don’t think there’s any single player who did more than the rest on defense in this great win. Washington threw a blanket over the Steelers offense, especially in the second half, and made it very difficult for the black & gold to execute their plan. The line, the linebackers, the CBs and the safeties all played hard and limited a very good offense to a very limited day.

Complementary football

Games are won and lost in three phases, and on Monday, Washington’s third phase, the Special Teams, had a good day too.

Dustin Hopkins was perfect, going 3 for 3 on field goals and hitting 2 PATs. On a day when the win relied on the accuracy of Hopkins’ leg, he scored once from 49 yards and twice from 45. After all the criticism I leveled at the coaches for keeping him on the active roster through the middle of the season when he was very unreliable, I feel like he deserves a big shout out for his role in this victory.

Tress Way punted 7 times — a busy day’s work for #5. He landed 4 of those punts inside the Pittsburgh 20-yard-line. The usual good performance from Washington’s MVP.

The kick returner, Danny Johnson, did make one mistake when he allowed a kickoff to bounce, thinking it would go into the end zone. It did not, and he had to field it late and try to create a return. He only managed to get the ball to the 18-yard-line. This was an uncharacteristic mistake, and his other returns were solid. I continue to feel good every time I see him initiate a kick return.

Bottom line

I want to go back to what I wrote in my Sunday article quoted at the top of this one:

Ron Rivera has stressed conditioning, mental toughness and teamwork since his arrival in Washington.

It may not have resulted in a lot of early wins, but it is paying off now, and the secret to success in the NFL has long been to play your best football in December.

Cincinnati Bengals v Washington Football Team Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The 2020 season started out with the Washington Football Team as the punch line to a lot of jokes, and the same was true of the New York Giants. Both teams took huge steps forward in establishing themselves as legitimate football teams playing big-boy football.

The Football Team had a national audience on Thanksgiving to see them rout the Cowboys in Dallas. They had maybe a quarter of the nation watching the Monday afternoon game live, but even the highlights and headlines of this win against the Steelers will get the attention of fans around the league. This stuff makes a difference. People pay attention. Two decades of dysfunction is not erased with two good football games, but seeds are planted.

NFL fans begin to hear a new narrative. They start to wonder if, maybe, Washington is a better team and the NFC East is a better division then they had been led to believe.

Here’s Ron Rivera talking about the win:

[This win] showed that we can play with teams like Pittsburgh. We have got to be able to make sure we understand that we’re capable of it.And I think it tells the other teams that, Hey, we’re pretty good. We got some guys that can play and we have got to go out and just do our thing.

The joke is over; the NFC East has two teams playing real football. It may not have started out that way, but now it’s happening, and it’s time for everyone to get their heads around that.

Poll

Who will go to the playoffs from the NFC East?

This poll is closed

  • 62%
    Washington
    (263 votes)
  • 28%
    New York
    (119 votes)
  • 0%
    Dallas
    (1 vote)
  • 8%
    The division will have two teams in the plaoyoffs
    (37 votes)
420 votes total Vote Now