The Washington Commanders ended 2023 with a home loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Here are five takeaways from the 27-10 defeat, presented by Maryland Lottery.
1. The defense played gritty.
The expectation was for the 49ers and their second-ranked offense to roll over the Commanders defense on Sunday. Brock Purdy and his unit certainly had a solid day with 408 yards and 28 first downs on 68 plays, but those stats don't exactly highlight how encouraging the Burgundy & Gold defense performed at times, particularly in the first half.
Nowhere was that clearer than in the red zone. The 49ers did a good job of putting themselves in position by methodically moving downfield on three of their first four possessions, but they faced tougher opposition inside the 20-yard line. After a six-yard run from Christian McCaffrey put San Francisco at the 1-yard line, Daron Payne burst through the 49ers' offensive line to take the running back down for a three-yard loss. Purdy wrapped up the drive with back-to-back incomplete passes, one of which was intended for Brandon Aiyuk with Emmanuel Forbes Jr. in coverage, before settling for a field goal.
Considering that Washington had given up an average of 37 points over their last four games, holding one of the league's best offenses to 13 points at halftime is an improvement.
"I thought the guys were really gritty," Ron Rivera said after the game. "I thought they gave themselves opportunities."
The 49ers still had their moments. They rushed for 184 yards, which helped them produce back-to-back touchdowns in the third quarter. Still, there were some positives during their final drives of the game. The Commanders kept them out of the end zone on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line and forced a three-and-out with Sam Darnold in at quarterback.
The game might have gotten out of hand at that point, but the fact that the Commanders played tough to the end was a sign of encouragement.
2. Brian Robinson Jr. was back in full force.
The Commanders have struggled for the last two weeks without Brian Robinson Jr., who has been inactive with a hamstring injury he sustained against the Miami Dolphins. With the second-year running back in the lineup once again, the unit showed some sparks of life.
Robinson has been one of the Commanders' best weapons, whether he plowed through defenders on the ground or made defenders miss as a pass-catcher. Both traits were on display Sunday as he accounted for 32 yards on his first two touches. He was responsible for 62 of the 130 yards the Commanders amassed on their scoring drives that tied the score.
Robinson ended the day with 13 touches for 76 yards, which added to what has already been a successful season for him. He eclipsed 1,000 scrimmage yards this season, becoming the first running back since Antonio Gibson in 2021 to accomplish the feat.
Robinson is currently at 708 rushing yards with 169 carries. Getting his first 1,000-yard rushing season is out of reach, but a big day against the Dallas Cowboys, who give up 116.3 yards on the ground, could push him past his career high of 797.
Check out the top photos of the Washington Commanders during their Week 17 game against the San Francisco 49ers. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)
3. Terry Mclaurin inches closer to franchise history.
Speaking of personal accomplishments, **Terry McLaurin** is on the cusp of hitting a franchise milestone that no other player has hit in Washington's 91 years of existence.
McLaurin caught four passes for 61 yards, most of which was gained on a 42-yard grab in the second quarter, against the 49ers on Sunday. That made him the sixth player in NFL history to record at least 900 receiving yards in each of his first five seasons, joining D.K. Metcalf, Mike Evans, A.J. Green, Randy Moss and Jerry Rice on the list. He passed Hugh Taylor for 13th all time in franchise scrimmage yards, further cementing his status as one of the best players to suit up for Washington in recent memory.
It also moved McLaurin closer to recording his fourth-consecutive 1,000-yard season, which would be a first for the franchise.
Washington has had several great players in its nine decades, from Hall of Fame players like Art Monk to other greats like Santana Moss, Bobby Mitchell and several more. Many of them had three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons -- McLaurin was the first player to hit that mark since Henry Ellard in 1994-96 -- but none have four straight on their resumes.
McLaurin (946) only needs to get 54 yards against the Cowboys on Sunday to hit 1,000.
4. The good and bad from Sam Howell.
Sam Howell was elevated to the starting quarterback role hours before kickoff when it was determined that Jacoby Brissett could not play with tightness in his hamstring. The results were objectively better than the past two games, but the young quarterback's performance was still mixed.
Let's start off with the good. In the previous games against the Jets and Rams, Howell looked skittish in the pocket and tried to force throws in tight windows. There was less of that against the 49ers, and he even flashed his arm strength and ball placement with the 42-yarder to McLaurin and a 25-yard pass to Curtis Samuel on second-and-20.
There were still moments where he tried to force throws. Two of them led to interceptions, one of which spoiled a 10-play, 64-yard drive that ended at the 49ers' 5-yard line. The second pick, intended for Byron Pringle, came two plays after the 49ers had taken a 27-10 lead.
Rivera still liked the progress Howell showed at times.
"[I] thought Sam had some really good moments," Rivera said. "Early on when things were balanced, it was one of those things that the situation gave him an opportunity and he performed. He really did. I thought he made some good decisions, threw some really good balls, and it's just obviously there are a couple throws I promise you he would wish he had back, but he did a lot of good things."
It's unknown at this point whether Howell or Brissett will start on Sunday, but the young quarterback will still have nearly a full season of work to reflect and build on for Year 3.
5. Finish strong.
Washington will have nothing to play for in terms of playoff position against the Cowboys. They were eliminated from contention weeks ago and have a chance to pick No. 2 overall in the draft. It'll be the end to a long, frustrating season that began with promise at the start of the offseason.
There are many fans who hope the Commanders end up losing on Sunday, but the players care little about draft position. After losing seven straight -- the longest streak in the NFL -- they want to end things on a positive note.
"We've got one game to finish this season off," McLaurin said. "You want to try to win this game. That's why you come in here. That's why you prepare each and every day. So that's my mentality to give it everything I've got. Try to see if we can get a win."
The Commanders could also spoil the Cowboys' hopes of winning the division. The Cowboys currently have the No. 2 seed with an 11-5 record, but the Eagles, currently the No. 5 seed, are also 11-5 and play the New York Giants at the same time at MetLife Stadium. The Cowboys have the tiebreaker, but they need to win to keep their position and win the division.
Though the Commanders' season is lost, it would be a nice consolation if they could wrap things up with an upset over their biggest rival.