The Washington Football Team's first season under head coach Ron Rivera ended with a disappointing yet encouraging 31-23 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Wild Card round of the playoffs on Saturday night. Here are five takeaways from the postseason defeat:
1. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke delivered a historic performance in his second-career start.
Fewer than six weeks ago, Heinicke was preparing to take his final exams at Old Dominion University. He had been out of the NFL since August of 2019, so he began gearing up for life after football by finishing his bachelor's degree in engineering.
But then Washington signed Heinicke to be the team's quarantine quarterback in December, and that was only the beginning of a whirlwind of a month. He joined the active roster before Week 15, then nearly led a fourth quarter comeback a week later. On Friday, he received the biggest news of his professional career: with Alex Smith still dealing with a calf injury, Heinicke would make his second-career start in the postseason opposite the best playoff quarterback in league history.
Heinicke did not outduel Brady, but he came pretty close, completing 26 of his 44 passes for 306 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He also led the team with 46 yards and an acrobatic score on eight carries. The most unlikely of playoff starters, Heinicke became the first undrafted quarterback to start a postseason contest in franchise history and the first to rush for a touchdown since Jeff Garcia in 2003.
Heinicke also spread the ball around. Cam Sims led the team with seven receptions for 104 yards, but Terry McLaurin (six catches, 75 yards) and Logan Thomas (five catches, 74 yards) were also heavily featured, and Steven Sims Jr. found the end zone on a beautiful catch and toe drag for a 11-yard score.
"It was gutsy, it really was," Rivera said of Heinicke's performance. "It's one of those things that -- a guy like him who works hard at what he does, he creates and opportunity for himself. We'll see what happens. I was just very proud of what he did, coming out and competing the way he did and helping us get where we are today."
Even more impressive was that Heinicke separated his AC joint when he got hit diving for the pylon on his touchdown late in the third quarter. He went to the locker room to get checked out, only to come back and lead Washington on an 11-play, 75-yard drive that cut the deficit to 28-23. Washington's comeback attempt eventually fell short, but Heinicke's unexpected excellence will be remembered for years to come.
"I'll take No. 4 on my team any day of the week," McLaurin said, "and twice on Sunday."
2. Washington received little help from its running game.
The Buccaneers had by far the best run defense in the NFL during the regular season, but offensive coordinator Scott Turner preached the importance of staying balanced in an effort to keep up with Tom Brady and his high-octane attack. But Saturday night, the running game was almost nonexistent.
Heinicke found success scrambling away from pressure, but the other 17 rushing attempts went for a combined 40 yards. A good amount of those rushes were on first downs, forcing Washington into second-and-long situations against the Bucs' dangerous pass rush.
Heinicke mostly overcame Washington's ineptitude on the ground, but its one-dimensional offense was not enough to pull the upset.
"I just wanted to go out there and complete the ball and let those guys do it," Heinicke said. "I go back to college and what my college coaches used to tell me. They just told me to complete the ball and get first downs and when you keep getting first downs, next thing you know you're getting points. So that was my biggest thing: get the right read, get the ball to those guys and let them do the work. We just came a little short today."
3. The defense failed to slow down the Bucs...
"We had our moments," Rivera said of the defensive performance Saturday. By moments, he likely means the Bucs' three red zone trips that ended in field goals and Daron Payne's forced fumble that led to Heinicke's score in the third quarter.
But all in all, the NFL's No. 2 total defense was not good enough. The Bucs racked up 507 yards of total offense, Brady threw for 381 yards and two touchdowns -- on just 22 completions -- and Leonard Fournette averaged 4.9 yards on 19 carries. He also scored the touchdown that put the Bucs ahead, 28-16, with about nine minutes to play. It was all the points they needed to advance to the Divisional round, where they'll either play the Los Angeles Rams or the New Orleans Saints.
"It's unfortunate," Rivera said. "There are a couple things that I wish would've gone our way, but unfortunately, they didn't. We were going up against one of the all-time greats. We had our moments to make plays, and then there were some disappointing things that we've got to get better at."
4. ...because of big passing plays and not enough pressure on Brady.
Tampa Bay likes to throw the ball down field, ranking third in the league with 67 completions of 20 or more yards. Washington was the best when it came to defending against those plays, giving up just 36 all season (2.25 per game).
However, it was no match for head coach Bruce Arians' vertical passing game Saturday night. The Bucs completed seven passes of at least 20 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown to a wide open Antonio Brown late in the first quarter and a 27-yard strike to Chris Godwin over the middle to make the score, 15-7, with about 10 minutes to play before halftime. It seemed like whenever the Bucs needed a spark, Brady found one of his pass-catchers for a chunk play.
"We definitely have to give them credit," cornerback Kendall Fuller said. "They definitely made some plays and, you know, we definitely had some series where we just got to lock in and just do the little things correct. When you start to get into playoff football, one play can make the difference and you got to lock in every snap. And like I said, we give them credit. They made more plays to win than we did."
Montez Sweat got to Brady for his 10th sack of the season, and Payne's career game included a pair of sacks, three quarterback hits and a forced fumble. But for the most part, Brady had time to operate. He was hit a total of seven times, but two of those came on the opening drive. Give Brady too much time, and he'll find an open man -- something he did a lot of to help the Bucs put up 31 points.
"You live and you learn," Payne said. "I wish we could have made a couple more plays and got off the field a couple of more times on third down and we would have been dancing around in the locker room afterward.
5. "We're headed up. We're on our way up."
Rivera experienced an array of emotions following the season-ending defeat. He was disappointed for his players because "they competed their butt off," sad because growth will require evolution and adaptation, and optimistic because "these guys showed what they're capable off."
One year removed from being 3-13 and having the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, Washington more than doubled its win total, clinched the NFL East for the first time since 2015 and gave the 11-win Bucs all they could handle despite being on its fourth quarterback of the season.
With such a young roster, Rivera believes that things will only continue to get better.
"For the most part, this last stretch that we went through, kind of showed us what we can become and it's up to us. We can learn from this experience that we just had, grow from this experience, and get better. I told the guys, 'We're headed up. We're on our way up.' There are a lot of positives to take from this."