Ron Rivera has often talked about measuring sticks for the franchise since becoming the Washington Commanders' head coach in 2020. Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills will be one of the biggest the team has faced so far.
"They're one of the elite teams in the AFC," Rivera said after Wednesday's practice. "I know they're 1-1, but records don't mean anything in this situation."
There's been a lot for the Commanders to feel good about lately. They're 2-0 for the first time in 12 years, and they came back from deficits in both games to do so. The 2023 season opener was played in front of a sold-out crowd, and it was recently announced that Sunday's game against the Bills is also sold out.
But with a Super Bowl contender coming to town with hopes of handing Washington its first loss, none of coaches or players are letting the good vibes go to their heads.
"We've got to gear up," Rivera said. "We've got to practice, prepare, get ourselves ready to go."
For a team that has been consistently predicted to be playing meaningful football in January and February, the Bills have come out to an up-and-down start. They squandered a lead against the New York Jets on Monday Night Football and lost in overtime, 22-16. Josh Allen did more harm than good during the primetime matchup, tossing three interceptions and giving up a fumble.
But as Rivera said, the Bills are still viewed as one of the top teams in the league and will be a challenge for the Commanders. They performed closer to expectations against the Las Vegas Raiders, cruising to a 38-10 rout thanks to a rushing attack that was led by James Cook, who had 123 yards on 17 carries.
Washington's players view it as an opportunity to perform against a perennial playoff contender.
"We're excited to give it our best effort. We can just kind of see where we're at," said quarterback Sam Howell. "We feel like all the stuff we have in so far game-plan wise, has been really good, so we're excited about the plan. [We've] got to have a really good week of practice and go out there on Sunday and just play our game. I feel like if we do that, we'll have a chance."
Just look at their stats if you need any indication that the Bills still pose a serious threat. They have a top five offense and defense -- they're the only team in the league that can boast about that -- and they allow the fourth fewest points on defense.
Howell kept it blunt when evaluating the Bills: "Probably the best defense we've played so far this year."
"Just everywhere you look on the field, there's a good player," Howell said. "They're a veteran group, they know exactly what they're doing in coverage, and they don't do a whole bunch of crazy looks. They kind of play what they play and they're really good at it. So, we got to be ready for that stuff."
And when it comes to Allen, who has the best completion percentage in the league (76.9%), Howell has "a lot of respect" for the two-time Pro Bowler.
"He's tough. You can tell he is a great leader and it's a lot of fun watching him."
A win over the Bills would push the Commanders to 3-0, which hasn't happened since 2005. The team wants to win as many games as possible, obviously, but they aren't thinking too far ahead. For now, their sole focus is putting together a game plan they feel confident in and putting themselves in the best position to succeed.
"It'll give us a great opportunity to see where we stand," Rivera said.
-- Neither Logan Thomas (concussion) nor Daron Payne (ankle) were present at practice on Wednesday. Both players missed time against the Broncos, and their status will need to be monitored throughout the week.
-- Howell took some time to break down his 30-yard touchdown pass to Terry McLaurin when speaking with reporters before practice. Howell pushed the credit to McLaurin and the coaching staff for calling the play, but he was also a big reason for the play's success. He knew the coverage Denver was in before the snap. He looked at the safety, saw that he wasn't in position to make a break on the ball and placed the pass exactly where it needed to be.
"It's an exciting feeling, man. It's kind of hard to describe, like when you get one of those plays called and you see the defense and you know you're going to have a chance. You just got to relax in the moment and try not to get too excited and just try to execute. It's a good feeling man."
-- That touchdown was one of several explosive plays Washington had in the second half, and when asked whether those moments provide an emotional boost, Howell said, "For sure."
"I think when you can get those big chunk plays, it just kind of gives the offense more momentum, more energy. You kind of get the defense on their heels. That's definitely something that every good offense, they always have a lot of explosive plays."
-- Howell also discussed getting to practice against the Commanders' defensive line. Washington has one of, if not the best defensive front in the NFL, he said, so it certainly helps to work against the group throughout the week.
"I have to really be on time with my feet and my eyes and my decision making and when something's not there, I got to find my check down really fast or just find an incompletion. That's obviously an area of my game where I'm still trying to improve on."
-- Howell has made it a point to do a better job of getting rid of the ball. Sticking with plays for too long got him in trouble against the Cardinals, partly resulting in six sacks. He did better against the Broncos, electing to take an incompletion over a loss of yardage, but it still wasn't up to his standard.
"I'm always trying to find ways to get the ball out of my hand and limit sacks. Obviously, I think we still had more than we'd like to have. So, just got to continue to do a better job of that stuff."