It is difficult to sum up the mood in the visiting locker room at Levi's Stadium better than Curtis Samuel did after the Washington Commanders' Christmas Eve game against the San Francisco 49ers.
"It's tough, not coming away with a win," Samuel said after the 37-20 loss. "But we just have to move on and focus on next week."
The Commanders have struggled all month after a dramatic win over the Atlanta Falcons put them two games above .500 and in the sixth seed of the playoffs. A tie and back-to-back losses gave them an 0-2-1 record in that span, so it is understandable that things have been a bit more somber for a team that had the best record in the NFL during their 6-1 stretch in October and November.
Despite the downward trend, the Commanders still have much to play for in the final two games. They still have control of the seventh seed, and if they defeat the Cleveland Browns on New Year's Day plus the Detroit Lions, Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers all lose, they will earn their second playoff berth in three seasons.
The team is aware of how important the next two weeks will be. That is why the focus remains high for the Burgundy & Gold.
"Well, nothing's changed," said coach Ron Rivera. "We're still in the same situation we were in going into this. We control our destiny. If we win the next two, we give ourselves a chance and we're in it. So that's up to us."
The feeling of playing meaningful football in early January is not a foreign one to Washington. The team was in the same position during the two previous seasons of Rivera's tenure, and just like the 2022 season, it started slowing before picking up enough steam to make a push in the final stretch.
Back in 2020, the late surge was enough to not only get Washington into the playoffs, but it also earned the NFC East division title with a 20-14 win over the Philadelphia Eagles that put Washington's final record at 7-9.
The same could not be said for last season, when a four-game winning streak put Washington at .500 after a 2-6 start and gave it a chance to get into the postseason with five straight division games to wrap up the schedule. But thanks in part to a COVID-19 outbreak, Washington collapsed in the final stretch by losing four of those games. The season finale victory against the New York Giants meant nothing since Washington had been eliminated the week before.
The path is different, but the Commanders have ended up in essentially the same spot after a stretch in which they won six of eight games. The fact that the final games mean so much means "everything" to the team, said Darrick Forrest.
"That's our opportunity. We can't miss it, so we're going to keep fighting. You learn from today and when we come out next weekend, we have to be prepared to fight and get this dub."
The Commanders will play their final two games at home, the first of which being this weekend's game against the Browns. Cleveland was eliminated from contention last week after losing to the New Orleans Saints, but it has weapons on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Deshaun Watson, that could present problems for Washington. Since coming back from his suspension, Watson has completed 57.7% of his passes for 703 yards
Players like running back Nick Chubb and defensive end Myles Garrett have also shown that they are still some of the best at their position. Chubb has 1,344 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, while Garrett has double-digit sacks. (13.5) for the fifth time in his six-year career.
So, the Commanders will take of deciding their fate with back-to-back home games.
"You can't really ask for much more than to have opportunity to try to get into the playoffs and we have two chances at home to do it," said Terry McLaurin. "We have to get back and see what we can do to get that done."
Should the Commanders manage to get into the playoffs, there are several factors that could help them make a run. They have one of the best defenses in the league, their offense is dedicated to running the ball and controlling the clock and they have a strong core of receivers.
However, the Commanders must be Cleveland first to keep those hopes alive for at least one more week.
"We're just focused on winning out trying to get a win these last two games and hopefully get us in the playoffs," Jahan Dotson said.