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Washington's resiliency has turned it into playoff contender


Just over a month ago, the Washington Football Team was doubted, dismissed and looked downright dismal eight games into the season and more likely to compete for a top draft pick rather than a top spot in the division.

Four games later, people are writing a quite different story. Washington hasn't lost since Halloween, and its win streak has placed it firmly in the playoff conversation.

If that feels like deja vu, you're not alone. 

Washington has come alive yet again in the second half of the season, and unlike last year, the wins have come against more complete teams and high profile signal-callers. Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Derek Carr have all fallen to Washington, and despite suffering a slew of injuries and making some mistakes along the way, the Burgundy & Gold has withstood it all with a resilience that reminds head coach Ron Rivera of last season's run.

"It really does," Rivera said. "And it is them relying on one another. It is them not trying to make the big splash play. It is them staying where they are supposed to and doing their job."

That resilience didn't come without some self-evaluation. Its offense lagged behind on scoring in the red zone and third-down production, while the defense was giving up nearly 400 yards per game and missed 9.6% of their tackles.

So, the team switched up its approach. It decided to lean more heavily on the run game with Antonio Gibson carrying the brunt of the workload and cleaned up its operation on defense. The decision to put more trust in Gibson has paid off in dividends. He's fifth in rushing with 800 yards; his yards after contact are sixth in NFL; and his 18 missed tackles are the second-most among running backs.

"Just physical running," Gibson said after the 17-15 win over the Las Vegas Raiders. "They trust me to do that, and I'm going to keep doing it."

As a result, Washington has dominated the pace of games. Washington is fourth in time of possession, and over the last three weeks, only the Baltimore Ravens have held the ball for longer. In the last three games, Washington is fourth in average rushing yards per game, and that comes with injuries to three centers and rookie standout Sam Cosmi being placed on Injured Reserve.

And yet, if the Washington offensive line is perturbed by the gut punched to its depth, the group isn't showing it.

"Well, I think a lot of it has to do with the way they work," Rivera said. "They've got tremendous work ethic. As a group, they're a very close-knit group."

Add that to the fact that Taylor Heinicke is playing some of his best football. He's completed at least 70% of his passes in four straight games -- the longest active streak in the NFL -- and he's thrown seven touchdowns to just two picks.

Time and time again, his ability to escape pressure has befuddled defenses, and moments like his game-winning drive against the Raiders have only added to the rock-solid support he has gotten from his teammates.

"What can you say about him?" Jonathan Allen said of Heinicke. "He just keeps showing why he needs to be our quarterback."

Outside voices were clamoring for drastic changes on defense after allowing 30 points in five of Washington's first eight games. Washington largely stuck to its guns, though. There was no desperation trade at the deadline for a pass-rusher, no wholesale cuts or benchings during the bye week. Instead, Washington worked with the players it had, which has not included either Chase Young or Montez Sweat, to fix the issues.

The improvements can be seen across the board. Washington has allowed an average of 11 fewer points while cutting its third down conversion rate, passing yards, rushing yards and missed tackles in half. Against the Raiders, who came into the Week 13 game with one of the premier passing offenses in the league, the unit held Carr to 249 yards.

"I'm gonna say these last five to six weeks, even though we lost a couple of those games," Allen said, "we started to establish and create that identity we're proud of, and that's what we want to be, and I think you're seeing it."

The elevated play has helped Washington do what matters most in November and December: win. The 29-19 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was won handedly enough, but the others haven't exactly been boring. The defense forced the Carolina Panthers to turn over the ball on downs on its final two drives while clinging to a six-point lead. On Monday Night Football, after allowing the Seattle Seahawks to march 96 yards downfield and come within two points of tying the game, Kendall Fuller intercepted Wilson's two-point conversion, all but ending the game.

And against the Raiders, Washington responded to an interception from Heinicke with a game-sealing field goal from Brian Johnson, who signed with the team last Tuesday.

"I'm very proud of these guys because of how resilient we are, how tough it was and just doing the things they needed to do to give ourselves a chance to win," Rivera said. "And as I said, all they need is a chance. And I really think this is a group of guys that'll just continue to be resilient."

The grit, determination and ability to fight has lifted Washington to the No. 6 seed in the playoffs. That would be great if the season was over, but there are still five games left, all against divisional opponents. As Rivera said in his Monday press conference, what happens to Washington is now in its hands. If Washington can continue its success, it has a good shot to win the division. There's no guarantee for that, but with Washington having found a way to stay in games until the end, the team should feel confident about its chances.

"It's about to get serious now," Allen said. "We put ourselves in a great position to where we want to be. So now we have to capitalize, we have to get healthy, and we have to get back to the grind."

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