The Washington Commanders are nearing the end of their season, and while there is still a mathematical chance of them making the playoffs, the path is narrow and requires them to win out plus multiple teams losing critical matchups.
As expected, many fans are starting to look past the season finale against the Dallas Cowboys at FedExField and speculate on where the team will land in the draft order. The Commanders would pick No. 4 overall if the draft were tomorrow, and more losses increases the chances of securing a higher pick.
Those emotions are understandable for the fans, but that's not the approach the team is taking in the final slate of games.
"I just struggle with that just because we're professionals," head coach Ron Rivera said during his Wednesday press conference. "We play to do our best, put it all out there and that's what we intend to do, is just put it all out there."
The Washington Commanders are back from their bye week and began working on their preparations for taking on the Los Angeles Rams.
The Commanders aren't delusional about their predicament coming out of the bye week. Their 45-15 loss to the Miami Dolphins dropped them to 4-9, ensuring that they will finish with a non-winning record for the seventh straight season. They're also aware they are the ones who put themselves in such a situation; the defense, which began the year with hopes of being a top unit, is at or near the bottom of nearly every category, and the offense's occasional flashes of above average performance is not nearly good enough to cover up those deficiencies.
So, while the players certainly want to beat the odds and make the postseason, that notion is far from their top priority.
"Until we play better, I'm not really worried about that," Jonathan Allen said in the locker room. "I'm trying to take it game by game."
Showing improvement, both as a team and on an individual level, is an attainable goal. For the Commanders, much of that involves showing some form of consistency against teams that are all at least competing for the playoff seeding. Their next opponent, the Los Angeles Rams, could take the seventh seed next week with a win and a Packers loss.
"I think this is a very good challenge for us just because it is a team that is fighting for their playoff life," Rivera said. "The big thing that we have to do is just go out and play our game."
That is not the case for Washington, whose playoff hopes are more of a concept than a reality. The players insist they still have a lot to play for, whether it's for their families or the teammates. Regardless of the motivation, every player wants to finish the year on a good note.
"We put in the work," said running back Antonio Gibson. "Finish strong. Fight for yourself, for pride and not giving up these last four weeks and going out there and putting some stuff on film."
There's also hope from the players that Washington can still show it can be a solid football team. "We still think we have so much potential," Sam Howell said during his press conference, "but we haven't put it all together." That's an accurate assessment of how the season has gone for the Commanders; positive plays have been matched by two negative plays, and they are often crippling blows that lead to deficits the team isn't able overcome.
With some of the conference's best teams on the horizon, Howell wants to show that he and the team can buck that trend.
"I just want to be really, really consistent. I think I've done some really good things this year. I just need to do it at a more consistent rate. I think that's my goal to go into these last four games and be really consistent and make plays and just play winning football.
"We still have a lot to play for and still four games left," Howell added. "We're going to take it one game at a time and we really want to find out how good we can really be as a team because we feel like we still don't know that yet."
As a former player himself, Rivera knows from personal experience how mentally tough it can be for players on struggling teams at this point in the season. They're facing what feels like an insurmountable obstacle, but Rivera views it as "a little bit of a test" on how to be a professional. He expects the team to "come to work, work hard, develop, and then get out there and give your best."
At the end of the day," Rivera said, "you got to take care of your business first and foremost."