The Washington Commanders could not maintain control of their playoff destiny and dropped their third-straight loss to the Cleveland Browns, 24-10. Here are five takeaways from the defeat.
1. It was a rocky start for the offense.
Things went well enough for the Commanders on the Browns' first possession of the game. Thanks to a holding call and a sack by Daron Payne, Cleveland only managed to gain six net yards on six plays.
Things did not fare much better for Washington after the punt, though, and it resulted in the team being forced to climb out of a hole for much of the afternoon.
Washington's first three drives of the game ended in frustration instead of points, as a failed fourth down attempt at the Browns' 40-yard line was sandwiched between two Carson Wentz interceptions. The first pick was intended for Terry McLaurin but ended up in the hands of Denzel Ward, leading to a Browns field goal five plays later. The second was the result of an off-target throw to Curtis Samuel that was snagged by Grant Delpit.
That one did not lead to any points, but it was a massive blow to Washington's attempts at getting the momentum to swing back in its favor.
Fortunately, the defense was able to keep the Browns from gaining much traction off the turnovers. Still, Washington had three empty possessions to start the game, which has been an all-too-common problem for the Burgundy & Gold lately.
2. The defense could not maintain its success in the second half.
Not having either Kam Curl or Benjamin St-Juste were tough losses for the Commanders, but the defense still managed to perform as expected in the second half. Aside from only allowing three points, the unit held Cleveland to 80 yards and sacked Deshaun Watson three times. (Daron Payne now has 11.5 sacks on the season, tying him for the most in a single season by a defensive tackle in franchise history.)
But after Washington's opening drive of the third quarter resulted in a three-and-out, things began to fall apart.
Much of that can be credited to Amari Cooper, who scored two of the Browns' three touchdowns in the second half and amassed 105 yards on three catches. The first came off an unfortunate missed tackle by Kendall Fuller on a third-and-4. Cooper kept his feet in bounds before turning up field and sprinting for a 46-yard score.
Adding to the frustration was Watson's elusiveness in the backfield, which confounded Washington's pass-rushers and kept the Browns on the field. Such was the case on Cleveland's final scoring drive of the day, as Watson evaded would-be tacklers on his way to a 21-yard gain.
Watson was sacked five times, but it could have been much more.
3. Washington's second-quarter drive was the only offensive bright spot.
With the score 3-0, Washington needed a jolt to get itself back in the game. That came in the second quarter, and for about 12 minutes, the offense looked like the unit that helped Washington go on a winning stretch in October and November.
The ball was at their own 4-yard line when the Commanders got to work. All the ingredients to the offense's success made an appearance. Brian Robinson plowed forward and accounted for 38 yards; playmakers like Jahan Dotson came up big with a 20-yard completion; and the unit converted five third downs before getting all the way to the Browns' 1-yard line.
It ended up being a 21-play, 96-yard drive that brought the clock all the way down to 21 seconds. Wentz made the conversion himself by leaping over the pile at the goal line, giving Washington a 7-3 lead.
While moments like that did not happen often enough in the game, it was a reminder of the offense's potential.
4. Third down conversions were few but backbreaking for Washington's defense.
The Browns only converted four of their 11 third down attempts against the Commanders, which is typical of how Washington's defense has played all season. However, those four came at the most inopportune times and had an indirect impact on the score.
All four of the Browns' third downs came in the second half, and all four came on scoring drives. The first was a third-and-2 at the Browns' own 45-yard line. Watson was able to scramble forward for four yards, and four plays later, this time on a third-and-5, Cooper scored his first touchdown.
The next came on a third-and-9 at the Browns' 48-yard line. Had Washington been able to get a stop, the score would have still been 10-7 with plenty of time for Washington to retake the lead. Instead, Cooper completed a 26-yard pass from Watson, putting Cleveland in scoring position at Washington's 26-yard line.
Finally, on another third-and-9, Donovan Peoples-Jones found a soft spot in the Commanders' coverage and finished the play in the end zone, putting Washington down two scores.
Keeping the third down conversion rate low is certainly a positive, but Washington must figure out how to prevent collapses at critical moments.
Check out the top photos of the Washington Commanders as they play their Week 17 game against the Cleveland Browns. (Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)
5. In control no longer.
Over the past month, Washington has been in control of its playoff destiny. Now, its hold on the seventh seed has slipped.
A win next week against the Dallas Cowboys would get Washington in the playoffs, but first, it must rely on other games around the league to shake out in its favor. Should the Minnesota Vikings lose to the Green Bay Packers, the Commanders would be eliminated with nothing to play for in the season finale at home.
Should the Vikings win, however, Washington will have one last chance to get into the postseason if it manages to get past the Cowboys. Dallas is one of the best teams in the league and has a shot to win the NFC East, so Washington will face a tough task to prove it deserves the right to play past Week 18.