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Washington fan confidence grows with back-to-back victories and return of playoff possibilities

Can the Football Team win three in a row for the first time since the team’s division title run in Nov-Dec last year?

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Football Team is back, baby!

At least, a large majority of fans feel it is headed in the right direction.

Following its Week 9 bye, WFT put together a convincing 10-point victory at home against the defending super bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, followed by an equally impressive 6-point road win against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers last Sunday.

A swing in the point spread

It was surprising, therefore, when the 3-7 Seattle Seahawks opened up as betting favorites for tomorrow night’s Monday Night Football game at Washington’s FedEx Field, but it didn’t take bookmakers long to realize they’d gotten it wrong. People who had seen Washington’s two impressive wins jumped all over the opportunity to bet money on the team quarterbacked by Taylor Heinicke, and the point spread quickly switched to Washington (-1) over the visiting Seahawks.

Washington’s long history of failure combined with a very rocky 2-6 start to the 2021 season had many of its own fans writing the team and the season off as lost not long ago, but that too has changed. NFL fans across the country, who probably haven’t seen Washington play good football this season, can easily be forgiven for thinking that the WFT is one of the worst in the NFL; in the weeks prior to the bye, it looked like it was.

A symbol of early season futility

Possibly no football play was more emblematic of the Football Team’s frustrating season to that point than the Taylor Heinicke run against the Packers where he fell forward as he approached the goal line and was correctly deemed by the officials to have given himself up at the half-yard line. What should have been a sure touchdown turned into a 4th & 1, and Heinicke then was stopped short of the touchdown on a quarterback sneak, ending the 11-play, 76-yard drive with no points.

Surging confidence

But that feels like a lifetime ago to Washington Football Team fans. This week, 4 out of 5 fans surveyed expressed confidence in the direction of the team, marking a dramatic rebound from recent weeks when confidence levels had bottomed out.

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Complementary football

While wins and losses are the primary driver of fan confidence, there are other factors that matter. During the first half of the season, individual players had good performances, and in some games, the offense played well but the defense didn’t. In the couple of weeks before the bye, the defense seemed to come together just as the offense began to sputter. However, in Weeks 10 & 11, all three phases came together to play as a team — “complementary football” led to back-to-back wins, with no single player standing out as the ‘hero’ of either win.

Dealing with injuries

Washington’s emergence as a winning team in these two weeks ran counter to the expectations of many, in part because of the impact of injuries. For instance, Washington lost its starting quarterback, veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, in the first 30 minutes of play in the opening game of the season. His backup, Taylor Heinicke, has played every offensive snap since Fitzpatrick’s injury, which happened just before halftime of that Week 1 game. The Week 2 matchup against the New York Giants was only Heinicke’s 3rd NFL start, and his first NFL win.

Curtis Samuel

But other injuries have hampered the team’s progress, as well. The highlight of Washington’s free agency period this year was the signing of Curtis Samuel. The Football Team clearly needed a receiving threat to match with star receiver Terry McLaurin, and Samuel, who was McLaurin’s roommate at Ohio State, and who had played for Ron Rivera in Carolina, seemed the perfect fit for offensive coordinator Scott Turner’s offense. Unfortunately, a groin injury that seems to have mysteriously lingered for months has kept the speedy and versatile receiver off the field for all but 30 offensive snaps this season. It was only this week that it became widely reported and confirmed that WFT’s new receiver had surgery in June, and that his recovery from surgery has suffered multiple setbacks.

The good news is that Samuel appears set to return to the lineup for the second time this season when Washington plays on Monday night.

Tight end

Samuel will not be the only offensive skill player being welcomed back. Tight End Logan Thomas, who had a career breakout year in 2020 in Washington, has been on IR since suffering a hamstring injury in Week 4. He is expected to be active for the MNF game. While both Thomas and Samuel are expected to be on ‘pitch counts’, each should add welcome dimension and depth to the team’s offensive attack.

During Logan Thomas’s absence, veteran TE Ricky Seals-Jones filled in capably, and his production as a receiver was similar to starter Thomas’s.

The surprise came when Seals-Jones was injured in the first half of the Week 10 game against the Buccaneers and Washington had to rely on 3rd string rookie TE John Bates, who is known as a blocker and development project to take over the primary TE role in the Washington offense.

But Bates proved to be capable of much more than just blocking in the run game. He made a difficult catch on what might’ve been the offensive play of the game against the Panthers last week on a 4th & 3 scramble by Taylor Heinicke.

Bates, a player who raised eyebrows when he was drafted in the 4th round due to his lack of receiving ability, has been instrumental in the two wins that have put Washington back into the playoff picture.

Sweat and Young

Perhaps the biggest surprise to Washington fans and NFL fans in general has been that the two wins have come largely in the absence of its two young star defensive ends, Montez Sweat and Chase Young. Sweat had his jaw broken in the week before the bye, and is on IR (expected back around the time Washington plays its next NFC East game, against the Cowboys in Week 14). While Chase Young started the game against Tampa Bay, he tore his ACL in the first half of that game, ending his 2021 season.

I think most people would have expected the loss of the two young defensive stars to spell the end of Washington’s chances to have a successful 2021 season, but the backups — a group of 7th round draft picks and UDFAs led by 2nd year players James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill — have rallied and played well.

The offensive line

On the other side of the ball, the offensive line has been affected by multiple injuries this season. While the left side of the line has been healthy all year, RT Sam Cosmi has been in and out of the lineup, All Pro RG Brandon Scherff has missed games, and Center Chase Roullier was put onto IR with a fractured leg bone. Roullier’s backup, Tyler Larsen, was injured last week; both he and Sam Cosmi are OUT for the Seahawks game.

Most NFL teams suffer OL injuries during the season. The difference for Washington is that backups — most notably interior lineman Wes Schweitzer and Tackle Cornelius Lucas (both of whom started a majority of games in 2020 for Washington) — have stepped in and played well. This depth, which most WFT fans recognized during training camp, is a large part of the reason why the Football Team is enjoying a successful November, while many teams that started out well in September are currently struggling.

Monday Night Football

This Monday Night Football game comes at an ideal time for the Washington Football Team. While the Seahawks have struggled to a 3-7 record by losing two-in-a-row and 5 of their last 6 games, the Football Team seems to be hitting its stride. While Russell Wilson is struggling through the worst season of his career and fighting to return from a mid-season injury, Taylor Heinicke seems to have found his groove as an NFL quarterback as he heads into the 12th start of his NFL career.

This is an opportunity to change the perception of the 2021 Washington Football Team, and to establish the team’s bona fides as a playoff contender. With a win, WFT would stay within one game of a playoff seeding.

Chasing an NFC wildcard spot

The two teams that currently hold the 6th & 7th positions in the NFC — the 49ers and Vikings — play each other on Sunday, meaning that one of them will fall to 5-6, the record that Washington can achieve with a victory over the Seahawks. The Saints have already lost, dropping them to 5-6, and with the Eagles & Giants playing on Sunday afternoon, one of those teams is sure to fall back in the standings. Washington’s wins over the Falcons and Panthers mean that the Football Team holds the tie breaker with each of those teams, who both have 6 losses, the same as Washington.

In short, Washington is well-poised for a wildcard seeding if the team can extend its winning ways.

The NFC East division race

But Washington’s playoff hopes are not limited only to its wildcard hopes. The Dallas Cowboys, who had held a commanding lead in the division at the midway point of the season, have lost 3 out of their last 4 games, including an upset loss at home on Thanksgiving day that dropped them to 7-4.

A win over the Seahawks would put Washington 2 games behind the Cowboys with 6 games remaining in the season; however, Washington’s final 5 games are all against NFC East opponents. Washington plays Dallas twice and Philly twice before the season ends in mid-January.

The Football Team, at this point, literally controls its own destiny with regard to winning the division. If Washington wins its final 7 games, it wins the division.

That, of course, is unlikely — a 9-game win streak (dating back to Week 10) to close out the season probably isn’t in the cards, but with Washington & Philly each playing 5 more division games, and Dallas & NY playing 4 each, anything is possible. It’s likely to be a wild finish in the NFC East.

A ‘must win’ game?

But all of this — fan confidence, a path to the playoffs, national recognition and respect — all rely on Washington playing well and winning on Monday night. While a loss wouldn’t spell the end of any of those goals, it would be problematic and push all of them a bit further out of reach.

Trying to restore confidence off the field too

For now, fans are feeling good about the Washington Football Team and its future direction. The team has turned things around on the field with its recent wins, and it seems to be doing better off the field, too. After botching the Sean Taylor jersey retirement last month amidst a storm of negative headlines about the team and its ownership, the front office took a positive step towards remedial action this week when it announced that a Sean Taylor memorial will be launched on April 22nd next year.

In conjunction with the rebranding that has been underway for well over a year, and which will be launched in 2022, after the end of the current season, this sort of action by the Washington franchise offers the opportunity to set a new direction with its fans. Ron Rivera, in a radio interview with Rich Eisen this week, intimated that the decision on the new name has been made, and that the team is about to place an order for its new gear and merchandise, at which point it may be hard to keep a lid on developments.

A huge prime time game for Washington

But for this week, everything rides on the outcome of the Monday Night Football game against the Seattle Seahawks. A win will do a great deal to affirm fan confidence, while a loss on the prime time broadcast — especially an embarrassing one — would set the organization back quite a lot.

This is Washington’s time to shine.