Miscues in all three facets were too much for the Washington Football Team to overcome in its 20-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday afternoon. Here are five takeaways from the Week 16 defeat.
1. Washington still controls its own destiny in the NFC East.
As frustrating as the loss was, Washington (6-9) can still win its first division title since 2015 if it defeats the Eagles in Philadelphia in the regular season finale.
Washington and the Dallas Cowboys currently have the same record, but Washington remains in first because it swept the Cowboys earlier this season. Washington will play an Eagles team that was just eliminated from postseason contention by way of its 30-17 loss to the Cowboys on Sunday. If Washington loses, the winner of the Cowboys-New York Giants game will represent the NFC East in the playoffs.
"We still control our destiny," head coach Ron Rivera said he told the team after the game. "I mean that's the truth of the matter. Again, we have one more game to play, it's a very important game, we'd like to focus on that game and, again, what's important and not what's interesting going forward."
2. Dwayne Haskins Jr. never found his rhythm.
Quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. could not build on a promising late-game performance against the Seattle Seahawks last weekend. In fact, the second-year signal-caller seemed to regress from where he was to start the Seahawks game.
Haskins began Sunday's contest with a pair of errant throws, then fumbled with Washington at the Panthers' 30-yard line. Before the half was over, Haskins added two interceptions to his poor stat line of 6-for-15 passing for 36 yards.
Rivera stayed with Haskins to start the third quarter with the hopes he could replicate his outing versus the Seahawks, but aside from a 50-yard completion to Cam Sims that resulted in a field goal, Haskins continued to struggle. His final play came on a 4th-and-2 early in the fourth quarter, when he missed a wide open Sims and instead took a sack at the Panthers' 36-yard line. Haskins finished the game 14-of-28 passing for 154 yards, three turnovers and a passer rating of 36.9.
"It was honestly probably the sum of the parts," Rivera said about Haskins' mistakes. "There were some opportunities that he had missed to give us a chance. I wanted to see what Taylor could do. Again, we're still in this, obviously. Next week is very important. We'll see what happens."
3. Taylor Heinicke thrived in limited action.
Taylor Heinicke was taking online classes at Old Dominion University and preparing for final exams when Washington called him about being the team's "quarantine quarterback." He signed to the practice squad Dec. 8 and joined the active roster before the Seahawks game. A week later, he was trying to lead Washington to a comeback win and its first division title in five years.
"I thought it was gutsy," Rivera said about Heinicke's relief appearance. "He took advantage of what they were doing in terms of playing soft and allowing him to take the underneath [routes], allowing him to hit certain throws. I thought his decision to take off and run was outstanding. I thought he had great vision. He went through his progressions and read the defense well and gave us a chance, which is all you can ask."
Heinicke, who made his first NFL appearance since 2018, entered the game with about nine minutes to play and immediately led a 16-play, 70-yard drive that looked like it would end with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Logan Thomas on fourth down. But Heinicke was only able to deliver the ball in part because guard Wes Schweitzer was holding his defender, which negated the score and set up a 4th-and-18. Heinicke's next attempt was batted down in the end zone for a turnover on downs.
Heinicke was even better on his second drive, which spanned eight plays and 91 yards. Right out of the two-minute warning, Heinicke waited until running back J.D. McKissic came open down the left sideline. He then threw a pristine pass to a falling McKissic in the end zone for a 29-yard score.
Heinicke never got a chance to try and complete the comeback, as the Panthers recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock. But he did almost everything he could in the defeat, completing 12 of his 19 passes for 137 yards and adding 22 rushing yards on three carries.
"I was just trying to move the ball, put some points on the board. We had some opportunities today and whether it was taking a sack or a fumble, something like that, we kept going backward. I stressed to the guys when I got in the huddle, 'Let's go down and be clean and score some points,' and I thought we did a pretty good job."
4. A mistake-filled first half put Washington in too big of a hole.
Double-digit deficits have been a staple of Washington's 2020 season, but Sunday's first half was the worst of the season considering the playoff implications.
The defense forced a three-and-out after Haskins' fumble and then got off the field again on the next possession, but the unit could only watch as Steven Sims Jr. muffed the ensuing punt, which resulted in the Panthers' first touchdown late in the first quarter. Then it was the defense that let the team down by allowing the Panthers to march down the field for back-to-back scores. With more than three minutes left before halftime, the visitors held a commanding 20-0 lead.
Wide receiver Curtis Samuel paced the Panthers over the opening two quarters with 112 scrimmage yards on just six touches thanks to a 45-yard run and a 44-yard reception. Teddy Bridgewater, meanwhile, completed 12 of his 19 passes for 127 yards and a 14-yard touchdown pass to Robby Anderson. Running back Mike Davis found the end zone as well.
"You have to be locked in early and know your assignments, got to go fast," defensive end Chase Young said about the key to starting faster. "Just like when we come out in the second half and you already warm in the game, you are feeling good, but you got to do that the first play of the game. I feel like that's the only way."
5. The defense gave Washington a chance to win in the second half.
Despite an uneven start to Sunday's game, Washington's vaunted defense gave the team a chance to win down the stretch. The Panthers were able to bleed eight minutes off the clock to start the second half, but they came away with zero points because of a strip sack and fumble recovery from Young. On the following three drives, Carolina gained an average of 2.7 yards per play and punted three times.
For the game, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio's group allowed just 280 yards of total offense and 13 points while recording four sacks and two turnovers. Linebacker Cole Holcomb led the way with 11 tackles, while Young stuffed the stat sheet and safety Kam Curl hauled in his second interception in three games.
And yet, because Washington spotted the Panthers 20 points early on, the game ended with the NFC East still up for grabs.
"We played against a very scrappy football team that's similar to us," Rivera said. "They're very young. There are a lot of young players out there that are making things happen. We made some mistakes that cost us. We turned the ball over in some tough situations and we allowed a couple of big plays defensively that hurt us as well. That's what was frustrating that we didn't play championship-caliber football, to be honest with you."