"Frustrating" is the word Jahan Dotson used to describe how things went for the Washington Commanders during their 38-31 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, and that was the emotion that permeated throughout the locker room.
"It's a couple of...plays here or there," Dotson said. "But it always seems like it's a couple plays or one play that really turns the tide for us."
Saying that a handful of plays can change a game or season is a phrase that several players use, but it's actually true for the Commanders, who are now at 3-5 after dropping their fifth loss in six games. The lack of execution for four quarters was at its most blatant on Sunday, when the Commanders had multiple opportunities to keep the pressure on an Eagles team they were close to beating at the start of the month.
The players insist they're close to putting things together. Perhaps that's true, but the last hurdle in that challenge -- capitalizing on every opportunity -- has been difficult for them to overcome.
"We just didn't make the plays necessary to win the game," Terry McLaurin said after the game. "That's where it starts for me."
Check out the top photos from the Washington Commanders' Week 8 matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)
Failing to take advantage of opportunities is not a new trend for the Commanders. Ironically, it started to become a problem for them in their first game against the Eagles.
In many ways, the Commanders got exactly what they wanted back in Week 4. The offense scored on its first two opening possessions, and the defense kept the Eagles in check to start the afternoon. The problem was that it didn't stay that way, as a lull to start the second half led to the Eagles climbing back from a touchdown deficit and taking the lead.
Yes, the Commanders did come back to tie the game in thrilling fashion, and yes, the review on the McLaurin non-catch in overtime was tough. But the Commanders also had a seven-point lead against a division opponent on the road and punted on three of their last five drives in regulation.
Four weeks later, the rematch between the Commanders and Eagles followed a similar flow. The offense jumped out to a double-digit lead with a pair of scores from McLaurin and Dotson, and the defense was doing enough to hold the Eagles to just three points. Once again, the Commanders got exactly what they needed to give themselves a chance.
Things started to go downhill in the second quarter, though.
"Disappointed," head coach Ron Rivera said when asked about his emotions after the loss. "These guys came out and played hard. We gave ourselves opportunities and we missed some opportunities, and we just have to go back and take a look at it and see why."
Going up 21-3 after Phidarian Mathis recovered a fumble likely wouldn't have put the Eagles completely out of it, but it certainly would have diminished their chances. For five minutes, it looked like that was going to happen. The Commanders moved from their 7-yard line down to the Eagles' 35 before hitting a fourth-and-1.
Washington elected to keep the offense on the field, which felt like the right decision based on how well the unit was moving in the first half. Sam Howell’s pass intended for McLaurin was almost intercepted, and with 1:48 left on the clock, the Eagles scored their first touchdown of the afternoon seven plays later.
"I wasn't my best when my best was needed and it hurt the team today," Howell said during his press conference.
Howell was exceptional for most of the afternoon. He looked comfortable in the pocket against an Eagles defense that was sixth in yards allowed and tied for third in sacks. He set career highs in pass attempts (52) and yards (397). Through eight games, he's fifth among quarterbacks with 2,146 passing yards and tied for sixth in passing touchdowns.
Howell only had one real blemish, but it came at the most inconvenient time. Two plays after the Eagles had tied the score at 24, he overshot McLaurin and had his pass intercepted by Reed Blankenship, who ran to the Commanders' 15-yard line before being taken down. The Eagles scored two plays later.
"We did a lot of good things, but we had an opportunity there in the fourth quarter to have a chance to go tie the game and I got to be better," Howell said.
Howell is referring to the Commanders' ensuing two drives, when the Commanders had seven minutes to tie things up. The first was more successful than the last, as they moved to the Eagles' 40-yard line. However, things ended with the Commanders giving the ball back to the Eagles after incompletions on passes to McLaurin.
Both players own some of the blame. Both third- and fourth-down passes were low, but McLaurin is one of the franchise's most statistically successful receivers because he normally makes those plays. After the game, McLaurin took full accountability for the drops.
"If I make one of those plays, it's a first down and we're still rolling and have a chance to score points," McLaurin said. "I'm not going to speak for other people. I can only speak for myself. I have to be better, and I'm going to be better."
Howell said that he has to give McLaurin a better chance.
"Terry did a good job, got open on both those routes," Howell said. "People might say they were catchable, but at the end of the day, I gotta make his job easier. Terry's a great player, and I gotta do my part."
The second was more disappointing: four plays, minus four yards a sack to force a turnover on downs.
"We always talk about starting fast and I feel like we came out and did that," Brian Robinson Jr. told reporters. "We also talk about finishing strong. That's something we have to continue to work on, work on finishing. When we have the lead and the momentum, we have to find a way to keep that lead and momentum going in our direction."
Washington's inability to do that regularly is at the root of the frustration Dotson and his teammates have felt for the last month. The mistakes have either ruined otherwise strong performances or led to inferior teams getting double-digit leads.
Rivera knows "there is enough potential in that locker room to be a better football team."
"If you can do that for four quarters against an elite team in the NFL, you should be able to do it any time that you want," Rivera said. "Our focus is we have nine games left to play. We'll play them one game at a time, and we'll focus in on what is coming up next."