The Washington Football Team's season is officially over, and there were plenty of moments that will stay with fans for years to come.
Between improbable comebacks, records being broken, playoff droughts ending and sensational plays from unlikely players, Washington found a way to endure an unprecedented season and start head coach Ron Rivera’s regime on a positive note. Here are the team's top five moments from the season.
5. Ryan Kerrigan Breaks Official Sack Record
It was essentially a foregone conclusion that Ryan Kerrigan was going to surpass Dexter Manley as the franchise's all-time official sack leader. All he needed was 1.5 sacks to become Washington's most efficient pass-rusher. The only question that remained was how long would it take.
The answer was one game. Kerrigan led Washington's eight-sack performance against the Philadelphia Eagles with two of his own, capping each play with his "HBK" celebration that fans had come to love.
"It meant a lot. It's pretty crazy," Kerrigan said after Washington’s season-opening 27-17 win. "This organization has been around for a really long time, seen a lot of really productive players come through. To be at the top of that list is pretty special for me."
Kerrigan's first sack came on the Eagles' second drive of the game; he rushed into the backfield untouched, which made quarterback Carson Wentz backpedal and turn to avoid the pressure. Wentz slipped out of a sack from Montez Sweat, but Kerrigan was there waiting to bring him down for a 10-yard loss.
Kerrigan's next sack -- the one that allowed him to surpass Manley -- came in the fourth quarter with the score tied at 17-17. This time, Kerrigan plowed through two Eagles players and grabbed Wentz's jersey to get the 92nd sack of his career.
Once the game had ended, Chase Young called Kerrigan "a dude," saying that his effort and ability to make plays made him special. Even though Kerrigan had fewer opportunities to impact the game this season, he made due with the snaps available to him, and he earned Rivera's respect for that.
"Coming off the bench and being fresh and getting two sacks," Rivera said, "and causing a couple of other plays out there to happen just speaks to who he is as a young man and what he means to our franchise going forward."
4. Washington Upsets Undefeated Steelers
Washington was starting to find some momentum after grinding out a win over the Cincinnati Bengals and blowing out the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving. It seemed like the young team was making progress, but it was about to face its toughest test yet against the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers.
Washington was a six-point underdog heading into the Monday night game, and it looked like the Steelers were going to blow past that mark. Although there were some great moments -- Young and the defense stopping Pittsburgh at the goal line in the second quarter -- Pittsburgh still held a 14-0 lead with just under four minutes left in the first half.
But just as it had done all season, Washington refused to give in. A 49-yard field goal from Dustin Hopkins made the score 14-3 at halftime, and then Washington went on a 14-play drive to cut Pittsburgh's lead to four points. The Steelers responded with a field goal, but Alex Smith hit Logan Thomas on a 15-yard touchdown to tie the score in the fourth quarter.
"We talked about fighting," Rivera said after the game. "There's no reason to stop playing. It doesn't matter what the score is. I just think that's who they are. These are a bunch of young guys that are learning how to play, with some veterans sprinkled in there at the right positions, and I think that we're growing and we're learning."
Things started to fall apart for Pittsburgh from there. Its following drive ended with a turnover on downs at Washington's 28-yard line, which allowed Smith and the offense to march down the field and take a lead with a 45-yard field goal. Then, after not forcing a sack all game, Washington's defensive line found a way to impact the game with a tipped pass from Sweat, which was then intercepted by Jon Bostic.
Washington added another field goal four plays later, cementing a 23-17 victory over the NFL's last undefeated team.
"I told them it was well earned," Rivera said. "We talked about the biggest thing, more so than anything else, is your reputation, your record. When you get on the field, those things don't matter. What matters is who plays the best and I thought our guys played pretty doggone good today."
3. Taylor Heinicke Erupts During Wild Card Weekend
No one knew what to expect out of backup Taylor Heinicke, who went from taking classes at Old Dominion to starting in a playoff game in about a month. It is safe to say that no one could have anticipated him to throw for 306 yards and put Washington in position to upset Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"I have nothing but respect for number four," Terry McLaurin said after the game. "The way he came in and handled his business on a moment's notice when we found out that Alex wasn't going to be able to go. He was just prepared for the moment. That's what this league is about, being prepared for your moment."
Heinicke brought new dimensions to Washington's offense -- among them deep vertical passes and elusive mobility -- and they flashed throughout the game. Fourteen of Heinicke's passes resulted in double-digit gains, and he led the team with six rushes for 46 yards. His biggest highlight came in the third quarter when he miraculously avoided pressure and dove into the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown that made the score 18-16.
"He's a true pro," Morgan Moses said. "I can't tell you why he was on the street before we picked him up because obviously you see him out there playing today. He has every quality of a football player that you want. I'm just glad we got him."
Heinicke was forced to exit the game after injuring his shoulder, but he came back on the next drive to hit Steven Sims Jr. for an 11-yard touchdown with five minutes left to play.
Heinicke ultimately could not lead Washington to on the game-tying score, but he has fascinated fans since his sensational performance. Rivera said after the game Heinicke had earned an opportunity, so it sounds like Washington has not seen the last of the 27-year-old signal-caller.
"I'm proud of myself and I'm happy that coaches believed in me and gave me the opportunity so...hopefully I can do it again next year," Heinicke said. "So, again, I want to be in the NFL, I want to keep playing ball. It's a dream of mine and [I will] keep working towards it."
2. Alex Smith Completes His Comeback
There are some stories that go beyond what is shown on the field, and that is the case when it comes to Smith making his return two years after his life-threatening leg injury.
Smith made tremendous progress in the months leading up to him coming in for an injured Kyle Allen against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 5. He was cleared for contact by team doctors and then showed he could handle a controlled pass rush in training camp. All that work came to a head when Smith jogged onto the field in the second quarter and finished the game.
"It was great to be out there," Smith told reporters. "The feeling, the range of emotions -- the good and the bad -- is why I fought so hard to come back. I think sometimes you can take it for granted, and certainly being away from it for a couple of years, I've missed it. So good to be back in it rolling, and like I said, we'll look at the film and get better and keep moving forward."
Nearly one month later, Smith replaced Allen again against the New York Giants and threw for 325 yards. This time, Smith was in the starting lineup for good, and after dropping a 30-27 loss to the Detroit Lions, he helped Washington win its next four games and finished the 5-1 as the starter.
"Everything that I had seen in terms of the reports that I was getting from the doctors were positive that this is a guy who has a chance," Rivera said. "Given who he is and the way he came back, it doesn't surprise me to a degree that he's got an opportunity and he earned an opportunity."
Smith could not play in three of Washington's final four games, as he was dealing with a calf injury, but the 36-year-old veteran had already proven he could defy the odds and help lead Washington to the playoffs. No matter what Smith does with his future, his accomplishment will go down as one of the greatest in sports history.
"I had so much fun this year, especially given all the COVID stuff," Smith said. "To be back in the locker room, to be with the guys, to be playing a game I love and to lose yourself in it, it's one of the greatest feelings in the world. You cannot duplicate it outside of here."
1. Washington Wins First NFC East Title Since 2015
Washington had been through a lot in the 2020 season between the COVID-19 protocols, Rivera battling cancer, injuries and quarterback changes, and yet it still had a chance to win the division for the first time since 2015. All it needed to do was beat the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 17.
It helped that Washington's offense was coming into the matchup at full strength with three of its biggest playmakers -- Smith, McLaurin and Antonio Gibson -- all suiting up together for the first time in weeks. Their presence paid off, as Washington scored on its opening drive for the first time all season. Then, after an interception by Kamren Curl set Washington up at the Eagles' 25-yard line, a 42-yard field goal led to a double-digit lead in the first quarter.
The game was more of a grind from there. Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts scored back-to-back rushing touchdowns to take a 14-10 lead, but Smith and the offense responded seconds before halftime with a 15-yard touchdown to Thomas to make the score 17-14. The offense was only able to score three points for the rest of the game, but the defense forced two turnovers and a turnover on downs to maintain Washington's lead.
"I've got a lot of faith in what our defense is doing," Rivera said after the 20-14 win. "It's interesting because we've come out in the first half and our defense has really shut people down. That's one of the things we saw today. In that third quarter, they're pretty stifling."
Rivera's goal since Week 5 had been to win the division because he believed in his players. Despite a 1-5 record, they never stopped fighting and put their faith in Rivera when he asked them, "Why not us?" Over the course of a year, Rivera had turned Washington’s potential into a playoff berth.
"This one is special just because of how hard it was and how tough everything has been on the guys and the organization," Rivera said. "It's a great group of young men in there, and we're trying to do things the right way. It's really a cool thing to come out and get the division."