After erasing a 24-3 second-half deficit, the Washington Football Team allowed a 59-yard field goal as time expired and fell to the Detroit Lions, 30-27. Here are five takeaways from Sunday's game.
1. Alex Smith had a career game in his first start in nearly two years.
Quarterback Alex Smith has long talked about wanting to return to the level he was playing at before his gruesome leg injury and life-threatening recovery. On Sunday, he was as good as he's ever been.
In his first start in nearly two years, Smith set career highs in attempts (55), completions (38) and yards (390) and did not turn over the ball. Whenever Washington needed a play, Smith made it by finding a variety of pass-catchers; seven players made at least four receptions, while six had at least 40 receiving yards. Smith's lone mistake came on the first drive, when he took a sack on third down to take the team out of field goal range.
"I thought he played a heck of a football game," head coach Ron Rivera said of Smith. "I think he's getting more and more comfortable back there, his decision-making is getting quicker. You see some of the really good decisions, some excellent throws -- put the ball where he needed to -- and again, it was good to see, it really was. Going forward, he's really just getting stronger and stronger."
Following a bad relief appearance against the Los Angeles Rams, Smith now has back-to-back 300-yard passing games for the first time in his 16-year NFL career. Not only is Smith miraculously playing football again, but he is performing at a higher level than anyone could have anticipated.
"That was the scary part about how normal it felt," Smith said about being the starter again. "Felt really good, felt really normal and I have to pinch myself with how lucky I am to feel that way. I am lucky that it's progressed this far and I am where I am because there are certainly a lot of people with similar injuries that aren't as lucky."
2. Washington dug itself yet another big hole.
A second straight loss seemed inevitable midway through the third quarter Sunday. Running back D'Andre Swift had just beaten linebacker Jon Bostic, made the catch in space and barreled over cornerback Jimmy Moreland and into the end zone, giving the Lions a 24-3 advantage.
Washington was in this position for several reasons. Defensively, it gave up two long touchdowns -- 27 and 55 yards, respectively -- and struggled to contain Swift, who finished with 149 scrimmage yards (81 rushing and 68 receiving). Offensively, it moved inside the Lions' 30-yard line on four occasions in the first half yet came away with just three points.
"I couldn't believe -- honestly, I was stunned -- that before half we had three points," Smith said.
As it has done all year, Washington never gave up despite being down by multiple scores. For the second straight game, the team was in position to win in the final moments. The issue has been ending up in these situations in the first place.
"It's kind of been the [theme] of the season," said defensive tackle Jonathan Allen. "It's been a tale of two halves: we play a terrible...first half, and we come out and we play a better second half. The thing is that when people think why that is, they think we're doing something different or we're doing some magical plays and it's really not any of that. It's doing your job to a higher level. It's doing the little things right, and that's ultimately what's killing us: we're not doing the little things right."
3. The running game continued to struggle.
The Lions entered Sunday with one of the worst rushing defenses in the NFL (148.1 yards per game allowed), yet Washington could not find much success on the ground.
Washington finished with just 89 yards rushing, and 27 of those came on a jet sweep from wide receiver Terry McLaurin in the first quarter. Running back Antonio Gibson averaged about 3.5 yards on 13 carries, while J.D. McKissic gained six yards on eight attempts.
Similar to the Giants game, Washington relied heavily on the pass once it went down by multiple scores. Still, the running game needs to be better, regardless of how many times Smith hands off the ball.
4. Washington's young offense is starting to come alive.
Over his last two games, Smith has completed more than 70% of his passes (62-for-87), thrown for 715 yards and helped Washington score 47 points. Smith attributed those successes to the young playmakers around him.
"As a quarterback, you're a product of the guys around you," Smith said. "We talked about all of this young talent in the huddle with me, certainly the guys up front battled today for me to drop back and throw it that many times. For those guys to fight the way they did, for Morgan [Moses] to move over to [left tackle] mid-drive, that says a lot about those guys and their talent. And then certainly the guys on the outside continuing to make plays."
McLaurin entered the season as Washington's No. 1 receiver, and he's exceeded expectations all season long (he led the team with seven catches for 95 yards Sunday). And since scoring a last-second touchdown against the Giants in Week 6, Cam Sims has played like a solid secondary option. With his four-catch, 54-yard effort against the Lions, he now has 208 yards the past four games.
Even more encouraging were the performances of undrafted rookie Isaiah Wright and second-year wideout Steven Sims Jr. The duo combined to catch 11 of its 12 targets for 105 yards. And then there were running backs Gibson and McKissic, whose receiving prowess helped them combine for 114 scrimmage yards.
With seven games left in the season, Washington's young unit is finally starting to find its rhythm under first-year offensive coordinator Scott Turner. Sunday was an encouraging step towards what the offense ultimately wants to become.
5. "We're learning to win. The thing we got to learn is to finish."
Some people will point to defensive end Chase Young's roughing the passer call as the reason Washington lost Sunday. After all, it gave the Lions a 1st-and-10 at midfield with six seconds left. Then, Matthew Stafford found Marvin Jones for a nine-yard gain, setting up Matt Prater's 59-yard field goal to win it.
When asked about the play Sunday, Allen disputed the notion that the loss fell on the No. 2 overall pick.
"He didn't lose us the game, I promise you that," Allen said. "There were too many things that happened that we shouldn't have been in that situation."
Washington was in a similar scenario last week against the Giants. Smith was widely scrutinized for his two interceptions in the final minutes, but he was just trying to make a play with the game on the line, Rivera said. If Washington played better earlier in the game, Smith may not have had to force those throws in the eventual 23-20 loss.
Smith was not solely responsible for that defeat, just as Young did not lose Sunday's contest. A multitude of factors contributed to these encouraging but disappointing results.
"Hey, we're learning to win. The thing we have to learn is to finish," Rivera told his team. "That's probably the best thing right now is we've been in position the last three or four games we've played, and it's just a matter of finishing it off."