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Three things to watch in Washington's final three games

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The Washington Commanders' ever-diminishing hopes of making the playoffs finally died last Sunday when the Los Angeles Rams ran out the clock on a 28-20 defeat, giving them a 4-10 record with three games left in the season.

The Commanders' official elimination from postseason contention did not come as a surprise. It was considered a longshot for them to sneak in as the seventh seed that required them to win out plus about a dozen other outcomes to swing in their favor. And with the way the Commanders had handled themselves in November -- normally the time of year when Ron Rivera’s teams manage to put it all together -- it was hard to buy into the belief that they were worthy of playing football in late January.

Still, disappointment abounds at the Commanders' facility. After being one of the few teams to start 2-0, the Commanders fell well short of expectations, particularly on defense, which is now last in yards and points allowed. That left the offense with the task of carrying the team to wins -- something it is not equipped to do, despite the improvements in some areas from a year ago.

With the playoffs now out of the picture, head coachRivera said he wants to see professionalism from his players to close out the year.

"As a professional, you play for what's out there for you and for these guys, yes, it's the opportunity to go out and play and just go out there and want to play, first and foremost," Rivera said. "That is what we'll continue to emphasize."

Here are three things the Commanders have to hope for in the final three games.

1. Development from Sam Howell.

The Commanders entered the 2023 season hoping that Sam Howell, who had impressed coaches during training camp with his poise and leadership, would continue to develop and provide a solid answer on whether he could be the quarterback of the future.

There's been some positive results in the first 14 games; there's also been signs that he still needs time to develop.

Howell, whose 3,568 yards are the 10th best in a single season for a Washington quarterback, has had moments where his better qualities -- namely his arm strength and ball placement -- have truly shined. They helped him bring Washington back from a 21-3 deficit against the Denver Broncos and hang with playoff teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks.

Howell's rougher traits, like holding the ball for too long, struggling against pressure and decision making, have also been on display. They've become more apparent as the Commanders have played better defenses. In the last four games, Howell has thrown just two touchdowns compared to six interceptions and averaged 196 yards. He was pulled in favor of Jacoby Brissett in the Commanders' loss to the Rams.

"There have been some positives and it continues to be positive, but the thing you always want to make sure is, as you're saying, we're still seeing the growth and that's something we have to sit down and discuss and see exactly where we all feel he is," Rivera said.

With three above average defenses up next -- the New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys -- the Commanders will want to see Howell continue to improve in areas he's already grown in, like his footwork, and show growth where progress has come at a slower rate. The biggest example is handling pressure, which has partly led to him being sacked 59 times.

Howell is certainly better at that than he was to start the year. He's now rolling out of the pocket, rather than staying at the top of his drops, and getting the ball out quicker. Those improvements have helped reduce the weekly sack totals to a more manageable rate.

But with the Cowboys, 49ers and Jets all possessing strong defensive fronts, Howell will continue to be tested by the likes of Nick Bosa, Micha Parsons and Quinnen Williams.

2. Growth from younger players.

Washington's 2023 draft class has taken longer to have a positive impact on the roster than some have hoped for. That has gradually gotten better in recent weeks, with players like Quan Martin and KJ Henry getting more snaps, but it's clear that they need more opportunities and time on the field to show what they can do.

Those extra snaps should come in the final three games. It started in Week 9 against the New England Patriots -- the first game after the Commanders traded Chase Young and Montez Sweat. The extra room on the depth chart gave Henry and seventh-round pick Andre Jones Jr. a shot to contribute, and since then they have combined for 16 tackles, five pass breakups and 1.5 sacks.

In the secondary, Martin and first-round pick Emmanuel Forbes Jr. are starting to put together more consistent results. Martin had his best game against the Rams, recording 10 tackles and a sack. Forbes' development has come more slowly than expected. He struggled with giving up explosive plays to start the season, and he has since seen his role drastically reduced. He played six snaps against the Rams, although Rivera said that decision was more about the matchups the Rams presented for the defense.

Most of Forbes' issues come down to him simply adjusting to the speed of the game and moving away from techniques he developed at the collegiate level.

"We want to see him use the techniques that he's being coached to use, work on those little things, work on the details of his job," Rivera said.

3. The offense must overcome its current slump.

It looked like Washington's offense was about to hit its stride about a month ago against the Seattle Seahawks. With Howell tossing three touchdowns and throwing for 312 yards, the unit had put the team in position to force overtime before the Seahawks got in range for a game-winning field goal.

Since then, the offense has not performed up to that level, partially because the Commanders have gone against better defenses. They have failed to surpass 300 yards in the last two weeks, including 297 against the Rams.

The Commanders' toughest tests will be in the final stretch against the Jets, 49ers and Cowboys with the final two competing for the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. Some of the improvements will center around Howell and whether he can prove himself against better competition. That alone hasn't always led to wins for the Commanders, but the offense's best days have unsurprisingly come when he's in a groove.

But Commanders' offense as a whole can be better. In the last three games, the unit is tied for 25th first downs per game, 17th in third-down conversion rate (37.21%) and tied for 24th in points. Against the Rams, Washington had four punts and two turnovers on down before finally getting in the end zone in the third quarter.

If Washington has any hope of getting a win in the last three weeks, it must find ways to stay on the field for longer and finish drives. The Commanders' offense only ran 58 plays against the Rams, and that simply is not going to cut it against the slate of opponents Washington has to close out the year.

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