The opinions reflected in this article do not reflect those of the team.
I love the NFL for its unusual level of unpredictability. The AFC and NFC West were supposed to be juggernaut divisions. The AFC and NFC East were not. The Giants and Seahawks were not supposed to be late season candidates to be flexed into Sunday Night Football. The Broncos were, but I think we've all had enough of them in prime viewing windows.
For the Commanders, they've had a circuitous route to some odd patterns in two-and-a-half years under Ron Rivera. Slow starts are an understatement. On a micro level, the opponent has scored first in nine of their 10 games this season. On a macro level, they have been at least three games under .500 before November in each of his three campaigns.
But in each of those three seasons, the team has fought its way back into a position to qualify for the playoffs (2020), have a Covid outbreak that turned 2021 into a "what if" scenario and now has the team positioned for a playoff run again.
And in each of Rivera's first three seasons, there has been at least one signature win that felt like it defied conventional expectations. That happened a few days ago where, if you watched ESPN's Monday Night Countdown Show, it felt like something straight out of Philly sports radio. You'd have been hard pressed to even know a single thing about who the Eagles were playing that night.
Take a look back at the best photos from the Washington Commanders' Week 10 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders
I'm not going to pretend that I knew Monday Night was coming, that the Commanders wouldn't just win, but harken back to the days of the Hogs exerting their will with a modern Riggo drill.
But I will say I'm not surprised that Rivera's team morphed into that imposing unit. For two-plus years, his teams get better, win close games and often look like the more physical group.
The Monday Night win over Philadelphia represents to me the best win of the Rivera era so far. And I want to stress so far. When on Tuesday his message to the media was not to act like they've arrived, if his team proves there are other levels to go, then we honestly don't know what they are capable of. What they did accomplish was their annual message game which is you better take us seriously. In that vein, here are the top five games of the Rivera era.
No. 5: Taylor Heinicke almost takes down the GOAT
I'll hear an argument that this belongs higher on the list but it also ended the Commanders season. It was as close to a football miracle as you can get.
Taylor Heinicke threw for over 300 yards and led the team in rushing. He also had maybe the most memorable play in years when he dove for the pylon to get Washington within two points of Tampa Bay heading to the fourth quarter of their Wild Card meeting. Had Washington won, it might have been the greatest upset in league history. Heinicke was taking business school classes a month earlier when he got the call from the Commanders to be a quarantine quarterback. This was only his second NFL start and was only there because Alex Smith suffered a calf injury in the regular season finale that prevented him from starting. Heinicke injured his shoulder in the game but came back and gutted it out and thanks to the Chase Young seal of approval, earned a chance to at least compete to make the Commanders roster the following spring.
No. 4: Thanksgiving Day at Dallas
Everything that could go wrong for Dallas in 2020, did. Dak Prescott suffered a gruesome ankle injury prior to the first of the two meetings Washington had with Dallas. The Cowboys' defense was historically bad in the first half of the season in yards and points allowed.
But Washington was only 3-7 when they came for their nearly bi-annual Turkey Day visit to Arlington. The only wins the then Football Team had at this point were against Philadelphia in Week 1 (which in hindsight was a precursor of their season cratering), aforementioned Dallas with a woeful D and no Prescott, and the week prior when they defeated Cincinnati at home in a tight low scoring game that flipped when Joe Burrow suffered a season-ending injury.
It was 20-16 Washington in the fourth when the Cowboys called a fake punt deep in their own territory that was doomed from the start. One play later, Antonio GIbson scampered into the end zone to give Washington a cushion.
On the next possession, Dallas got nine yards on five plays and punted. Washington's next drive was methodical; eight of the 10 plays were runs. A ninth ended up being a Smith scramble. It ended on a 37-yard run by Gibson for his third touchdown of the day.
The next play from scrimmage, Montez Sweat batted a ball into the air himself and returned it 15 yards for a score. It's easily among the greatest 10 minute stretches of play by the Commanders over their arch rival in their long rivalry. Washington won, 41-16.
No. 3: One week later, in Pittsburgh.
The NFL pushed back the Steelers' previous game against Baltimore due to a Covid outbreak on the Ravens' roster. This in turn forced a change to the Steelers-Washington game, which ended up being played on a Monday afternoon.
The Steelers came in 11-0 with one of the top scoring offenses in the league and led 14-0 late in the first half.
But Alex Smith was beyond efficient – 31-of-46 for just under 300 yards passing. Steelers runners were held to 14 carries for an absurd 21 yards. Like they had the previous week in Dallas, Washington woke up in the fourth quarter by scoring 13 points. The final four drives for the Steelers: three plays, -2 yards, punt. Nine plays, 34 yards, turnover on downs. One play, zero yards, interception. Two plays, 22 yards, end of game. Washington won, 23-17.
No. 2: Nov. 14, 2021, vs Tampa Bay
Washington went into their bye week on a four-game losing streak. Its previous game against Denver is where starting center
Chase Roullier suffered a season-ending injury. This was also the game where Washington had two field goals blocked when they had turned to an inexperienced kicker.
Washington was 2-6 with the defending Super Bowl champs coming to FedExField. And yet, the Commanders never trailed thanks to two first-quarter interceptions of Tom Brady. But Brady got his team within four with 11 minutes left. That's when Washington went on arguably one of their greatest drives in team history.
19 plays, 80 yards, 10:26 off the clock. They converted four third downs that included a third-and-5 dart to Terry McLaurin inside the Buccaneers 10, where McLaurin took a massive shot.
The drive ended on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line with a touchdown run by Gibson. Not since that drive and that game have we seen Washington exert itself on an opponent until they did in Philadelphia earlier this week.
No. 1: In an odd coincidence, one year to the day of the TB win, Monday Night in Philadelphia
Washington ended up rushing the ball 49 times. They held an absurd 17:38 time of possession disparity in the first half and methodically moved the ball up and down the field throughout the night. They had four drives of at least 12 plays.
Joey Slye hit two field goals from 50-plus, including a 58 yarder to end the first half. And Heinicke made a couple of plays that won't make a box score but had everything to do with the result.
In the first half, a high snap went almost 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Heinicke didn't just recover it; he had the presence of mind to get outside the pocket and throw it out of bounds past the line of scrimmage. It salvaged a drive that ended up in a touchdown. Late in the game, he gave himself up when a throw on third-and-7 wasn't there. When two Eagles hit him while he was on one knee, he popped up and signaled first down knowing exactly what had just happened – a careless penalty that would help seal a win over the league's last unbeaten team.
With late season matchups (2) against the Giants and a season finale against Dallas coming, this list is subject to change. Plus, Rivera might be right: This team may not have arrived, and if they do so in mid-January, mid-season statements will only qualify as footnotes.