The Washington Football Team was one of the hottest groups in the NFL after its bye week, and a big reason for that, besides its resiliency to close out close matchups, was how it did a good enough job of protecting the football.
On Sunday, with playoffs and division standings on the line against the Dallas Cowboys, Washington bucked that trend with four turnovers against one of the most opportunistic defenses in the league, and they ended up costing it the game.
Dallas turned three of those turnovers into 17 points, and take it from Washington as it failed a late comeback attempt in a 27-20 loss, that matters. The season isn't lost, but as the team now scrambles to regain ground in the playoff hunt, it got served a harsh reminder at a crucial point in the year.
"They capitalized, put points on the board," said head coach Ron Rivera. "[Against] Good football teams, you have to. Because if you don't, other good football teams will keep you from coming back."
While all four are inexcusable, the first two can be explained. Facing a third-and-10 at Dallas' 37-yard line -- ironically, three plays removed from Landon Collins getting an easy pick off Dak Prescott -- Randy Gregory tipped Taylor Heinicke’s pass to himself and returned it down to Washington's 41-yard line. While obviously not ideal, it isn't surprising a defense that leads the league in interceptions would make an athletic play like that.
It's also hard to fault Rivera for leaving his offense on the field on the ensuing Washington possession. Dallas had just turned Gregory's interception into a five-play touchdown drive with a successful two-point conversion to boot. His team was down 11-0 at home, and he wanted to create some momentum. The results, it turned out, had the opposite effect as the Cowboys waltzed a Heinicke fumble into the end zone.
"I thought the defense started pretty soundly initially," Rivera said. "I would've loved to have seen if we could have gotten the ball to where we were hoping to get it. Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to. That was disappointing. That was my thought process. And that's on me. That was my decision. Nobody else's."
Perhaps Heinicke could have seen Gregory sooner and thrown the ball away or held onto the ball better on his fumble. Either way, this fact remains: Washington couldn't capitalize on mistakes where Dallas could, and as a result, it was staring at an 18-0 lead in the first quarter.
"We had a plan for them and they covered it pretty well," Heinicke said. "When the front seven keeps getting pressure on you and the secondary covers like they did today… that's a good defense. We just have to keep responding."
The Washington Football Team hosted the Dallas Cowboys for Week 14 and suffered a 27-20 loss despite a late comeback. Check out the top shots from the action. (Photos by Emilee Fails, Karlee Sell, and Joseph Noyes/Washington Football Team)
The final two turnovers didn't cost Washington as many points, but they did rob the team of something just as valuable: a chance to come back. Washington was down 24-0 at the half, and while a four-score deficit was a challenge, it wasn't completely insurmountable given how much time was left on the clock and that Washington received the ball to start the third quarter.
Every positive was followed by another setback. Heinicke injected the game with a dose of his patented heroics with a pinpoint shot to Cam Sims, followed by a pylon dive on the two-point conversion. Washington's defense jumped in on the action as well with its first three-and-out in four drives.
But two plays later, Antonio Gibson coughed up the ball at Washington's 25-yard line. The defense did manage to force a field goal, but the extension of Dallas' lead felt much heavier than three points.
"You keep talking to him, you keep coaching him, you keep teaching him," Rivera said of Gibson. We're not gonna change anything other than making sure he understands how important it is to protect the football."
In spite of all that, Washington still had a chance to win the game. It scored 12 points in a matter of 56 seconds in the fourth quarter by way of a Jonathan Williams touchdown and a pick-six from Cole Holcomb. After another Dallas punt, Washington actually had a chance to tie the game with three minutes to spare.
Then the worst thing that could happen, did happen. Kyle Allen, who had taken over for an injured Heinicke, had the ball slip from his fingers on a pass attempt that was ruled a fumble at Washington's 28-yard line. After a review, the play stood as called, leaving Washington's comeback hopes without a leg to stand on.
"I was just trying to get the ball out to Adam Humphries late in the down, so that we could have a play on fourth down," Allen said. "[I] Thought the ball went forward. I thought my knee was down but just thought I threw it forward."
The late effort, while admirable, was not enough to overcome an afternoon of gaffes, misfires and giveaways. Now, Washington is back to looking at the playoff picture from the outside, but the door is still left ajar for it to get back on course. A road trip against the Philadelphia Eagles is the next division foe on the schedule, giving Washington a shot towards getting back to .500.
Hopefully, as Washington continues its division gauntlet, the lesson served in Week 14 will be easily learned.
"When you get an opportunity to put some points on the board," Rivera said, "you gotta put them on the board."