Someone could have watched the Washington Football Team's Wild Card matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and learned almost everything there is to know about how the team has played for the past two months.
The defense, which has been by far the team's biggest strength all year, went blow-for-blow with one of the NFL's best offenses led by one of the league's best quarterbacks of all time. Big plays turned into touchdowns, but it made enough plays to stay in the game.
On the other side of the ball, the offense was without its starting quarterback once again. There were times when it struggled, but there were also moments that showed the unit's growth. Thanks to some magic conjured by Taylor Heinicke, Washington started to put together a rousing comeback that put the team within two points of tying the score, but an injury that forced Heinicke into the locker room all but shut down any hopes of an upset.
That is when all the mental mistakes and near misses throughout the game that come with a young team started to carry more weight. And although Washington showed how far it had come in just three months, it left FedExField after a 31-23 defeat with thoughts of what could have been.
There were moments when Washington looked like it was doing what was needed to steal a win from Tom Brady in his first season with the Buccaneers. The vaunted defensive line was pressuring Brady, the secondary was playing well and the offense was clicking with scoring drives of 61, 52 and 75 yards.
And yet, the same issues Washington had struggled with all year continued. Brady started to moved down the field in chunks, and despite Heinicke's return in the fourth quarter, the offense could not do enough to come back from a 12-point deficit.
The potential was there, but so was the room for improvement.
Tampa Bay quickly jumped out to a 9-0 lead thanks to a 29-yard field goal on its opening drive and an interception that came from a tipped pass. That is when Heinicke and the offense started to find some traction with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a two-yard run from J.D. McKissic.
But after a failed surprise onside kick, Brady and the Buccaneers zipped down the field in five plays and turned a 9-7 score into an eight-point lead with a 27-yard touchdown pass to Chris Godwin. Another field goal from Succop made the score, 18-7, heading into halftime.
That was when Heinicke and the offense started to put together one of most electrifying second halves the team had mustered all season. It started with a 36-yard field goal from Dustin Hopkins that made the score 18-10. Then, after Daron Payne forced a fumble with six minutes left in the third quarter, Heinicke ducked and juked through defenders to direct a seven-play 61-yard drive that ended with a diving eight-yard touchdown from the signal-caller.
Washington was in position to take a lead for the first time all night when Tampa Bay was forced to kick another field goal on it ensuing possession, but Heinicke injured his shoulder after hitting the ground awkwardly and later went to the locker room.
One drive later, after Tampa Bay scored another touchdown to take a 28-16 lead, Heinicke was back on the field and led another scoring drive that ended with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Steven Sims Jr. The Bucs responded with a field goal, but Washington was still within one possession with about three minutes to play.