A big win
The Washington Football Team went on the road to Carolina on Sunday to face the Panthers in a game filled with sub-plots that was key to both teams’ playoff hopes. While the headlines were all about Cam Newton’s return to Carolina as a starter, the recent success that the Panthers had been enjoying, with a 5-5 overall record and 2 wins in their previous 3 games had been built on the foundation of a league leading defense. Carolina’s defensive unit was ranked #2 overall and 1st against the pass, so it was always likely to be the Football Team’s success on the ground that would matter in this Week 11 matchup.
Incredibly, all three touchdowns that Washington scored in this important victory were on Taylor Heinicke passes. While Heinicke threw only 16 completions for a net of 179 yards, he managed to throw TD passes to Cam Sims, Terry McLaurin, and — for the
second third straight week — DeAndre Carter. He also had a beautiful 39-yard completion to Terry McLaurin as one of the game’s highlights.
Taylor Heinicke really threaded the needle on the TD throw to Cam Sims pic.twitter.com/eu6W3Zol2K— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) November 22, 2021
This is such a nice red zone concept by Scott Turner. Pivot route by DeAndre Carter looks like a slant under a pick by the TE Bates, but then Bates breaks inside and Carter pivots back out. Excellent pic.twitter.com/m7VqaVo4dt— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) November 21, 2021
Success in the run game
The win was, indeed, built on the success of the run game, with Antonio Gibson leading the rushing with 19 carries for 95 yards, but Gibson made two crucial mistakes that both made it more difficult for Washington to come away with the victory.
The first mistake by Gibson was a fumble in the red zone on 2nd & 8 from the Carolina 13 yard line. A defensive lineman reached out a hand and simply dislodged the ball as Gibson passed by him. Carolina recovered the ball, preventing Washington from tying the ball game at 7 points. It’s an unhappy fact that Gibson is leading the NFL in fumbles.
The other big mistake by Gibson came on Washington’s final real drive of the game, as the Football Team tried to accomplish the same type of clock-killing scoring drive that socked away the victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a week earlier. On a 3rd & 10 play, and with Carolina out of timeouts, Gibson really only had to do two things: hold onto the ball and stay inbounds. He accomplished the first, but not the second, meaning that, following the field goal that put Washington up by six points, Carolina got the ball back with 1:50 left on the clock instead of 1:10 or so.
“Play of the game” (No. 1)
Washington started that final scoring drive at the Carolina 34 yard line because Kam Curl made what might’ve been the biggest defensive play of the game, tackling Christian McCaffrey about 5 inches short of the line to gain on a 4th & 3 play with 3:02 left in the game.
Huge tackle and stop by Kam Curl on McCaffrey just short of the 1st down marker. Panthers turnover on owns and Washington gets the ball back pic.twitter.com/Mr442QFUqA— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) November 21, 2021
“Play of the game” (No. 2)
The other candidate for defensive play of the game also came on 4th down. It was again 4th & 3, this time around midfield with Carolina needing a touchdown to win the game. Newton held the ball a second too long, and Daron Payne broke through the pass protection to hit Newton for the first and only sack of the day, which he shared with James Smith-Williams, who helped wrestle the big quarterback to the ground to ruin Cam’s homecoming.
Jon Allen forces the Panthers to slide the C towards him, leaving Payne 1-on-1 with the RG. Payne breaks through and forces Newton to try and step up before closing for the sack pic.twitter.com/tBWDjsE2qY— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) November 21, 2021
Once again, this was a team win.
Washington kept pounding it in the ground game
Washington rushed for 190 yards on 40 carries; and while Antonio Gibson carried 19 times at 5.0 yards per carry, McKissic got 7 carries at a 6.6 average and Jaret Patterson got another 7 carries, running hard for 23 yards. Taylor Heinicke ran the ball 6 times for 29 yards, once on a designed run. All four player broke at least one big run at different points in the game, with AG’s longest run being 20 yards, McKissic 15 yards, Heinicke 14 yards, and Patterson 11 yards. Together, they rushed for 12 first downs.
Jaret Patterson just refuses to go down pic.twitter.com/5WapfrZiYD— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) November 21, 2021
Keeping drives alive
Similar to last week, Washington did well on 3rd down conversions, going 6-13, but adding two 4th down conversions on 2 attempts, bringing the total to 8 extended drives against 5 stops.
Even third string TE John Bates, who had to step up this game, contributed a huge play with a 4th-down reception that kept a drive alive and resulted in the field goal that took to score to 24-21.
Stopping Carolina drives and limiting possessions
Meanwhile, Washington’s defense, which is ranked last in the league in 3rd down efficiency, held the Panthers to 2-9 on 3rd down and 1-3 on 4th down. The resulting time of possession was heavily in Washington’s favor at 35:53 to 24:07.
While Carolina was 100% on red zone possessions, the Panthers only got to the red zone on offense one time; the Football Team’s defense, after (stop me if you’ve heard this before) allowing a touchdown on the opening drive, simply didn’t let the Panthers offense get any traction. forcing 4 consecutive punts before allowing a touchdown on a Cam Newton 24 yard scramble late in the second quarter. The Panthers had only 4 possessions in the second half. They scored a touchdown on a 27-yard pass to McCaffrey, but the three other drives resulted in a punt and two turnovers on downs. Washington, meanwhile, scored a touchdown and kicked two field goals on 4 offensive drives in the second half (excluding the final kneel downs), burning up over 23 minutes on the clock in the final 30 minutes of play.
Over the last two games, Washington has shown an ability to strangle the opposition by keeping the talented opposing quarterbacks on the sidelines for most of the second half. Both the offense and the defense suddenly seem to have developed a killer instinct that had previously seemed to be missing for much of the season.
DARON CALLED GAME pic.twitter.com/8yKYKkKosu— Washington Football Team (@WashingtonNFL) November 21, 2021
Somewhat surprisingly, Washington had no takeaways and finished the game -1 in turnover differential because of Gibson’s fumble. This was the first game all year that the Panthers had lost when they committed less than two turnovers.
Injuries happened in this game, and could have provided an easy excuse for Washington if they had lost. With Chase Roullier on IR, the Football Team started Tyler Larsen at center for the second week in a row. Larsen was injured early, and was replaced by Wes Schweitzer, who is a guard with some positional flexibility. Schweitzer played well in relief of Larsen, but then had to go out of the game temporarily himself, being replaced by Keith Ismael — the third center of the day and the 4th to play in three games.
As I was reminded in the comments, Sam Cosmi left mid-game with an injury and didn’t return. He was replaced by Cornelius Lucas, who started most of last season at OT, and who played well. Lucas has played most or all of the offensive snaps in 5 games this season, and is proving to be a valuable member of the roster. Due to its good depth and coaching Washington’s offensive line has barely missed a beat despite several changes forced by injuries at Center, Right Guard and Right Tackle. OL depth was always expected to be a factor for the Football Team this season. Guys like Schweitzer and Lucas, who started most of the 2020 season, have meant that Washington’s offensive line has fared better than the average NFL team that has to navigate multiple OL injuries in a season.
Aside from Larsen and Cosmi, the Football Team appeared to come out of the game relatively healthy, though JD McKissic seemed to tweak his ankle in the first half. He got taped up and continued to play.
Special Teams chipped in again this week, with Joey Slye making both of his field goal attempts (for the margin of victory) and all of his PATs. Carolina started only one of its 10 offensive drives outside the 25 yard line, and that drive began on the 30 yard line following a 49-yard punt by Tress Way.
By contrast, Washington started its first scoring drive from the 34 yard line, its second scoring drive from the 29, its third scoring drive from the 34, and its final scoring drive (field goal) from the 34. This was largely due to good returns by DeAndre Carter, who continues, week after week, to show why he was signed in the offseason, and why he deserves a spot on the 53-man roster.
Special teams play of the day
Still, Carter came very close to making a critical mistake when he fumbled the ball with just under 6 minutes left in the second half. He was saved by Troy Apke, who made the Special Teams play of the day by ending up with possession of the ball when the bodies were unpiled.
DeAndre Carter fumbled on this KO return and the ball is somewhere in that mass of humanity on the 29. Troy Apke somehow spots it and is able to dive in there to get it and save WFT's possession. Terry would go on to score on this drive just before half pic.twitter.com/dzXRBYYjDV— Pete Hailey (@PeteHaileyNBCS) November 22, 2021
It would have been a disaster for Washington to turn the ball over to the Panthers at the 34 yard line, but it looked initially as though that was exactly what had happened. I guess none of the officials saw a clear recovery because they spent more than half a minute pulling bodies off the pile until they reached the bottom, where Apke had the ball in his hands. The replay showed that about four players were on top of the ball before Apke dived in and started digging. How he ended up with possession is a story that will probably never be told. (One thing the coaches will need to talk to Sammis Reyes about is fumble pile etiquette. As the refs were trying to get to the bottom of things, he ran in and started trying to get involved. One of his teammates eventually tapped him on the arm and led him away, preventing any possibility of a flag, but he never should have been there.)
“Player of the game”
If I had to pick the ‘player of the game’, I’d probably go with Heinicke. While his final drive this week was a bit less impressive than the one against Tampa Bay, the young quarterback probably played the best and most complete game of his young career, making good decisions on both passes and runs, and, to the best of my recollection, never once throwing a ball that was in danger of being picked off. He played, as he always does, with fire and passion. He is incredibly easy to root for, and when he is winning, he looks like an NFL quarterback.
Heinicke has thrown for 435 yards, 4 TDs and no INTs over the past two games, while rushing 9 times for 44 yards, and for the second week in a row has led a 4th quarter drive to win a game.
While its easy to be skeptical about the season given the team’s 4-6 record, over the past two weeks, Washington has won convincingly against two teams that were earmarked for the playoffs at the time the game was played — with one of those teams being the defending superbowl champs.
The win keeps Washington’s narrow playoff hopes alive.
Following the early games, here’s where things were standing:
AS it stands right now, 9 teams remain in the hunt for two wildcard seedings (#6 & #7). At the moment, the two teams that fill those spots — the Vikings and Saints — each have 5-5 records, putting Washington, at 4-6, just one game out of the playoffs. Of the eight other teams, Washington holds the tie-breaker over the Panthers, Falcons & Giants, and still has games against the Seahawks and Eagles (twice).
With too many early losses, Washington will have a series of “must win” games if it hopes to stay on track for the playoffs. Each of the past two weeks qualified for that designation, and so does the next one against the Seahawks, who lost to the Cardinals in the late-game window today to fall to 3-7, having lost 5 out of their last 6 games with their only win coming at home against Jacksonville. Washington needs the win just to keep pace, but also for the tie-breaker advantage over Seattle in case they make a late surge.
The NFC East
Even the division title, which seems firmly in control of the Dallas Cowboys, may be up for grabs. Dallas, at the time that I’m writing this, is trailing the Chiefs 16-3 at the half. If the Cowboys don’t come back in that game, they would fall to 7-3, three games ahead of Washington, but Dallas still has to play the Football Team twice, and closes out the season in Philadelphia. The Eagles have been playing very well, winning 2 consecutive games in convincing manner against the Broncos 30-13 and Saints 40-29. I don’t think Dallas can assume just yet that they are destined to win the NFC East title in 2021, though they certainly have the inside track. Even the Giants, who play in Tampa Bay on Monday Night Football this week, won’t be out of contention if they can get the win against the Buccaneers.
Sunday’s win against the Panthers was a quality victory that involved the entire team and helped create increased opportunities for the team to earn its way to the playoffs. We’ve been here before in 2012, 2015 and 2020. It’s improbable and it’s never easy, but the Football Team seems to be coming together.
With Logan Thomas, Ricky Seals-Jones and Curtis Samuel all potential candidates to return to health in the next week or two, reinforcements could be on the way. The fact that the team has gotten two quality victories without Montez Sweat and with Chase Young gone fro the final 6 quarters says a lot about the team’s resiliency.
There’s a long way to go to achieve a successful 2021 season, and there’s no guarantee that we’ll get there, but for the second week in a row, the entire roster pulled together to keep hope alive.