After Week 4, head coach Ron Rivera came to a realization: even in his first season, with a young roster amid a global pandemic, the Washington Football Team could win the NFC East.
"I just felt that with the pieces we had -- why not us?" Rivera said after the Seattle Seahawks game in Week 15. "I looked at it and, to be honest with you, there were six games that I saw coming up. I just felt if we could win three of those six and then see what happens after that, we could be in a pretty good place. That's why I did what I did. I just looked at it and felt it. I was drawing on my experience of having played and coached in this league for 30 years. I just felt there was an opportunity and I wanted to take it and see what happens."
The struggles continued and the injuries piled up -- Washington entered the Detroit Lions game with a record of 2-6 and on its third quarterback -- but then it found its rhythm. A dominant defense, paired with a proven winner in quarterback Alex Smith, led to four straight wins and first place in the division. And even though Washington lost back-to-back contests without Smith, it still controlled its own destiny entering the regular season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles.
It was a wacky, sloppy Sunday Night Football game in Philadelphia, which was fitting considering the state of the division this season, but in the end, after a season unlike any other, Washington (7-9) secured a 20-14 victory to win the division for the first time since 2015.
Washington, the fourth seed in the NFC, will host the fifth-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild card round of the playoffs Saturday at 8:15 p.m.
Check out photos of the Washington Football Team during its Week 17 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles. (Photos courtesy of Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team, Elijah Griffin Sr./Washington Football and Courtney Rivera/Washington Football Team)
Washington had everything to play for Sunday night, and it played like it in the first quarter.
It scored on its opening drive for the first time all season, marching 91 yards on 15 plays and immediately taking control of the NFC East showdown with a five-yard pass from Smith to wide receiver Terry McLaurin. Both players were questionable for the game with their respective injuries, but with the franchise's first postseason berth since 2015 on the line, two of the team's biggest offensive playmakers were out there leading the way.
The Eagles' ensuing possession lasted just two plays and ended with an interception from rookie safety Kam Curl, which set Washington up inside the Eagles' 35-yard line. The offense could not double the lead, but it did enough to set up kicker Dustin Hopkins for a 42-yard field goal to put the visitors ahead, 10-0.
The lead, though, was short-lived, as Eagles rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts quickly erased the deficit with a pair of rushing touchdowns. Mobile quarterbacks have been an issue for Washington (7-9) all season, and Sunday was no exception. Whenever it seemed like the defense would bring down Hurts, he escaped and made a play.
But when Washington needed it most, the defense delivered. It closed the first half by forcing a three-and-out, which allowed the offense to drive down the field and score the go-ahead touchdown right before the break on a 13-yard score from tight end Logan Thomas.
And when the Eagles inexplicably replaced Hurts with Nate Sudfeld in the fourth quarter, Washington capitalized. Safety Jeremy Reaves secured an interception, while Chase Young scooped up a fumble. The offense did almost nothing the final two quarters, but on this night, it did not matter. Another 42-yard field goal from Hopkins extended Washington's lead to 20-14, and the defense did the rest.
In the most unprecedented season in NFL history, Washington is going to the playoffs.