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Taylor Heinicke Shines, Washington Can’t Come Back Against Tampa Bay In Wild Card Defeat, 31-23

In just his second career start, Heinicke put the team on his shoulders but came up just short in his playoff debut

Wild Card Round - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Washington Football Team Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

One week after earning the NFC East title, the Washington Football Team’s season has come to an end as they fell to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday night in the Wild Card round by a score of 31-23.

Washington was dealt their first blow of the game before the contest even started, as it was announced midday that Alex Smith was not fit to play and was inactive for the game. This meant that the WFT would be forced to turn to Taylor Heinicke to start his second professional game. Heinicke rose to the occasion and played beyond any reasonable expectation given the circumstances he faced. On the night he went 26-of-44 for 306 yards passing, with one touchdown and one interception apiece. His passes were crisp and his time under center was some of the best quarterback play Washington has seen this season among the four different starters who have suited up in 2020.

Tampa Bay started strong with ten points in the first quarter courtesy of a Ryan Succop 29-yard field goal on the Bucs’ first drive of the game. They followed with a six-play, 56-yard drive later in the stanza capped off by a 36-yard pitch and catch from Tom Brady to Antonio Brown to put the Bucs up 9-0 with Jeremy Reaves blocking the point-after try.

The Football Team got on the board on their first possession of the second quarter with a 10-play, 75-yard drive completed as J.D. McKissic plunged into the endzone from two yards out, and Dustin Hopkins’ extra point made it a two-point game.

On the ensuing drive, Brady marched 62 yards in just five plays over 2:56 and found Chris Godwin in the endzone for a 27-yard score. The two-point conversion was unsuccessful, but a 23-yard Succop field goal gave Tampa Bay the 18-7 halftime lead.

Perhaps buying into their identity as a second-half team, Washington started to show some confidence in the third quarter. First, Washington got on the scoreboard with a 36-yard Dustin Hopkins field goal to trim the deficit to eight points. On the next Bucs drive John Bostic popped on a Ke’Shawn Vaughn fumble, and Taylor Heineke went to work.

Heineke orchestrated a seven-play, 61-yard drive befitting a quarterback with many more years under his belt than the 27-year old in his second career start. Heineke finished the drive with his feet, diving to the pylon to extend and finish a play that forced him to elude five tacklers for the score. A failed two-point attempt had Washington down 18-16 with 2:14 remaining in the third quarter.

Then Tom Brady then did what Tom Brady does, leading two more scoring drives down to put Tampa up 28-16 via a field goal and touchdown. Heineke was forced to the locker room due to a shoulder injury, and backup Steven Montez began warming up on the sideline, preparing for his first NFL action. However just as the broadcast crew began to intro the understudy, Heineke valiantly came out of the locker room and off the sideline, able to stay in the game.

Despite looking physically uncomfortable in between the whistles, the young quarterback continued to stand out and execute.

Heineke then gashed 75 yards through the Buccaneers defense in 11 plays, before dropping it into the back corner of the endzone over Steven Sims’ back shoulder, Sims executed a nimble toe-drag and brought the Washington deficit to just five points with under five minutes remaining in regulation.

A huge Daron Payne sack on Tampa’s next possession stalled the drive and held the Bucs to a 37-yard field goal, extending the lead back to eight with 2:49 left in the fourth quarter.

Heineke got back to work with the opportunity to win the ball game. Washington advanced into Tampa Bay territory with 2:27 remaining, before Levante David burst through the tackles on a forced a fourth-and-21 out of the two-minute warning. The task proved to be too much as an incomplete pass intended for Logan Thomas fell incomplete to end the comeback bid.

The Washington defense struggled at times, as despite three sacks saw Tom Brady go 22-of-44 for 381 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers. Mike Evans was his top target with 119 yards on six catches and was one of eight receivers with a catch for Tampa.

For Washington Cam Sims led the way with seven catches and 104 yards and was one of eight receivers to catch a pass by Heineke. On the ground, Washington struggled to move the football and recorded just 86 yards on 23 tries, with Heineke leading the way with 46 yards on six carries.

With the loss, Washington’s playoff drought continues and must look to next year for their first playoff win since 2005. For the Bucs, it was a measure of retribution, having picked up the victory after having lost that 2005 contest. The victory was also the franchise’s first since winning the Super Bowl in 2002.

While a very challenging and unpredictable year for Washington ends in defeat, this is a season that can not be called anything if not a success. The club faced turnover, turmoil, and adversity on and off the field, but a trip to the postseason in the first year under head coach Ron Rivera is truly remarkable and inspiring. While Alex Smith was unable to suit up on this night, his leadership and veteran ability were essential to this team. In the year he was finally able to return to football following a recovery from a catastrophic injury, he will be the runaway leader in the Comeback Player Of The Year Award.

Washington saw returning players improve at nearly every position on the field, and are buoyed by the additions of newcomers including Antonio Gibson, and presumptive Defensive Rookie Of The Year Chase Young.

There will be plenty of questions to answer in the offseason, but Washington’s performance in 2020 was a remarkable feat, and they conclude it with potential and intrigue at what will come next.