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After inspiring turnaround, Washington readies for NFC East gauntlet

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Head coach Ron Rivera surveys his team during the Washington Football Team's game against the Carolina Panthers. (Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)

Ron Rivera got what he wanted. Against all odds, Washington -- after a dismal start to a seemingly lost season -- emerged from its bye week as a team transformed. By winning four consecutive games, as Rivera audaciously suggested plausible, Washington injected itself into the playoff picture and made a season-closing, five-game gauntlet against NFC East rivals rife with division-title implications.

Now Rivera, having spurred a dramatic second-half turnaround for the second consecutive season, wants something more immediate: A packed, pandemonium-drenched stadium full of jacked-up Washington fans for Sunday's showdown with the division-leading Dallas Cowboys at FedExField.

The second annual Resurrection Tour, Rivera said Wednesday, "makes for more entertainment. Hopefully, it sells more tickets. (Our fans) better show up. We need them, and they need to be there.”

That statement might have seemed silly at the start of November, when the 6-1 Cowboys were running away with the division and Washington, at 2-6, had a better record than only four other NFL teams. Now, after closely contested victories over the Buccaneers, Panthers, Seahawks and Raiders, Washington (6-6) is currently in position for a wild-card berth (it would be the NFC's sixth seed if the season ended today) and trails Dallas (8-4) by just two games in the NFC East.

And now, for better or worse, the schedule gets downright weird.

Washington closes its regular season by facing two of its division opponents (the Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles) twice apiece in alternating weeks, then has a rematch with the New York Giants, a team it defeated in a 30-29 Week 2 thriller. Rivera, who has been involved with the NFL in some capacity since the Chicago Bears selected him in the second round of the 1984 draft, has never heard of such a stretch. He's also puzzled at the ordering of the five games: Dallas, at Philadelphia, at Dallas, Philadelphia, at New York Giants. Putting the Giants in the middle of that string, in Rivera's eyes, would have made a bit more sense.

Historically, Rivera believes, closely stacked games between division rivals tend to facilitate splits. To win the division, Washington would likely have to defy that trend and sweep the Cowboys.

Then again, defying the odds is kind of Washington's thing right now. It began with Rivera's David vs. Goliath-themed approach before the 29-19 upset of the defending Super Bowl champion Bucs on Nov. 14, and the postgame rock-throwing celebrations have continued through last Sunday's 17-15 triumph in Las Vegas, when defensive coordinator (and former Raiders head coach) Jack Del Rio did the honors in a jubilant visitors locker room.

The Cowboys, Washington's most reviled rival regardless of circumstance, present a significant challenge and come into Sunday's game with a great deal of confidence: On Thursday, Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy, upon his return from a recent COVID-19-related absence, told reporters, "We're going to win this game. I'm confident in that."

Rivera and his players have their own reasons for optimism, however. For one thing, they've survived a slew of injuries, including star pass rusher Chase Young’s season-ending torn ACL, and managed to become a sounder, more well-rounded ensemble.

On defense, the absence of two elite edge rushers -- Young, who went down during the victory over the Bucs, and Montez Sweat, who missed the past four games with a fractured jaw and will be sidelined Sunday after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list -- would seem to present a challenging set of circumstances. Yet Washington, which allowed opposing offenses an average of 389 yards during its first eight games, surrendered only 286 per contest throughout its four-game win streak.

There are many reasons for this unlikely turnaround, including some schematic adjustments by Del Rio, the strong play of interior defensive linemen Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Matt Ioannidis and solid fill-in performances by the quintet of players (defensive ends James Smith-Williams, Casey Toohill, Shaka Toney and Bunmi Rotimi and hybrid Daniel Wise) filling in for Sweat and Young.

"The biggest thing is, you play to the strengths of the guys you have out there right now," Rivera said. "We're better when we're aggressive. We've run a few more pressures and had that 'Buffalo Nickel' (typically safety/linebacker Landon Collins) running through (on blitzes), and had success. We're getting more direct pressure on the quarterback. We might not be getting more sacks, but we're making them throw the ball quicker."

During the bye week, Rivera conceded that Sweat and Young were putting pressure on themselves to make big plays, saying, "they need to stop pressing and trust their teammates." Their fill-ins may be less prolific, but they appear to be following their assignments, something Rivera has been preaching since his arrival.

"If we're pushing (from the interior of the line) and bring somebody off the edge, those (interior linemen) are gonna force the quarterback to the edges and run them right into those (edge) guys," Rivera said. "So when they're where they're supposed to be, that's huge. Each of those guys has his own ability, and they're all playing within that ability -- they don't feel like they have to do more than they can.

"James (Smith-Williams) is a physical guy who lines up over the tight end, whips him and controls that gap. He's a grinder who does the dirty jobs. Casey (Toohill) is a highly active edge player who attacks the play. He doesn't do anything spectacular, but he's a blue-collar guy who is effective for us. (Daniel) Wise is a tweener; he can play 3-, 5-, 6-, 7- or 9-technique. He's a high-motor, very active guy who gets his body contorted in all these crazy positions and has made several tackles just because of his sheer effort.

"Shaka (Toney), of all the young guys, has the most juice. He's quick off the ball, explosive, can close and has good length to reach the quarterback. Bunmi doesn't have Shaka's flat-out speed, but he has his 'quicks,' and he's been effective for us, too."

Throw in the emergence of second-year safety Kam Curl as a force on the back end and an overall increase in maturity, and the defense -- along with its formerly maligned coordinator -- has once again become a highly productive unit.

As Rivera said sarcastically: "(Del Rio) found his football intelligence again. How about that?"

Washington's offense has also improved in recent weeks, with quarterback Taylor Heinicke showcasing his play-making potential, wideout Terry McLaurin making a Pro Bowl push and second-year halfback Antonio Gibson now atop the NFC with 800 rushing yards, among other standouts.

Put it all together, and Rivera has spoken into existence the scenario he envisioned during the bye week, when he said of the just-completed stretch of non-division games: "If we can win three or more of those four, those last five games become real, and we can control our own destiny."

They're real, and Washington -- beginning Sunday, against its arch-rival -- has an opportunity to do something spectacular.

To get there, Rivera's counting on his players continuing to defy the odds, and on legions of loud fans to help inspire them.

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