Justin Berl/Associated Press
In any other division and pretty much any other year, it might be too late for the Washington Football Team.
Plagued early on by quarterback issues, injuries and possibly growing pains associated with major changes in a pandemic-derailed offseason, Washington started 1-5 and likely would have been toast if not for the fact the historically soft NFC East granted it a bloated margin for error.
But that doesn’t change the fact the WFT is now causing the league to shout WTF.
Under regular circumstances, their wild 23-17 Week 13 victory over the formerly undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers would have only been viewed as the ultimate spoiler feat. But now, we have to consider the possibility that head coach Ron Rivera’s increasingly tough and competitive squad could be a disruptive force in the 2020 playoffs.
A three-game winning streak capped by Monday’s thrilling comeback victory in Pittsburgh has Washington tied with the New York Giants for the NFC East lead. New York holds the tiebreaker as a result of two head-to-head wins over the WFT, but the Giants are dealing with an injury to quarterback Daniel Jones and don’t play another team with a losing record until Week 17.
Washington, on the other hand, draws just one more opponent that currently holds a winning record, and it doesn’t play away from home or a neutral site until Week 17.
Besides, if Monday’s shocking performance against Pittsburgh is any indication, the quality of their opponents might not matter as much as we might have expected.
Despite nine penalties, a huge missed opportunity on a failed recovery of a muffed punt in the first half and the early loss of top running back Antonio Gibson, Washington beat an 11-0 team on the road to remain even with the Giants.
It was the Football Team’s first victory over an opponent with a winning record this season, but it was also their seventh consecutive game that resulted in either an outright win or a loss by three or fewer points. They haven’t been clearly outplayed since falling 30-10 to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 5.
It all starts with a defense that ranked fourth in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average at Football Outsiders) before allowing just 4.9 yards per play and giving up just one touchdown on three Pittsburgh red-zone possessions Monday evening, but it’s worth noting the aforementioned loss to the Rams came just before veteran quarterback Alex Smith was reinstated as the full-time starter.
Something happened to this team in mid-October.
It appeared to get more comfortable under Rivera’s tutelage, Smith’s return from a devastating leg injury that led to 17 surgeries brought good vibes to an organization typically allergic to harmony, the rookie Gibson started to emerge as a viable lead back, and a jacked defensive front began to truly take off as rookie No. 2 overall pick Chase Young returned from a September groin injury.
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
Alex Smith made it back from what many considered a career-ending broken leg in 2018.
⬜️ 17 surgeries
⬜️ Talk of amputation
⬜️ Life-threatening infection
⬜️ Missed two seasons
Tonight, he led Washington to an upset over the undefeated Steelers 🙌 https://t.co/v1udyEPnw8
Fortunately for the WFT, that all came together just as the team entered a long stretch with few significant challenges. Unfortunately, until Monday, that meant it was easy to overlook the fact this squad deserved a lot more respect than most of its oft-derided “NFC Least” siblings.
Now, courtesy of a prime-time-ish, standalone win that will hold a place in the hearts of Washington football fans for years to come regardless of how this season ends, America has to acknowledge the WFT.
Against a Super Bowl contender attempting to maintain its grasp on the top seed in the AFC, we got to see Young, Daron Payne and Montez Sweat play difference-making roles as part of a defensive front that features five first-round picks. We got to see an epic goal-line stand in which the Steelers were shut down on five consecutive plays at the Washington goal line, we got to see that unit hold Pittsburgh to 21 total rushing yards on 14 carries, and we got to see Smith’s best performance yet under extremely challenging circumstances.
Nobody expected Washington to battle back from a 14-0 first-half deficit. The Steelers defense led the league in DVOA entering Week 13, and the WFT offense isn’t exactly explosive. Throw in Gibson’s injury and it’s safe to assume some viewers checked out for dinner in advance of the Monday Night Football tilt between the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers.
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
But without his top back and against the NFL‘s top defense, the 36-year-old Smith kept chipping away. He took hit after hit from T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward and other Pittsburgh defenders. At one point, he was bleeding profusely from his ankle. But he stood tall and continued to chip away with smart, safe passes to a wide variety of weapons.
That 14-0 late-first-half deficit became 14-10 early in the third quarter, and 14-10 eventually became 17-17 and momentum. Smith and the fired-up D carried the Football Team the rest of the way. Pittsburgh generated three points on its final eight drives of the game; Washington scored on each of its final three.
In many ways, it was a vintage performance from Smith, a quarterback who built a career handing out deaths by a thousand cuts. He hit tight end Logan Thomas on all nine passes he threw his way for fewer than 100 total yards, he positioned breakout receiver Cam Sims perfectly for big chunks of yards after the catch, and at one point, he went to versatile back J.D. McKissic on practically a play-by-play basis until the Steelers could prove capable of stopping him.
It wasn’t pretty, but that’s not the way this team was built. This squad is all about staunch defense, a careful offense that has committed multiple turnovers in just two of its last nine games and, once again, a gritty, resilient quarterback who just might finally have the football gods on his side.
Nobody in this league is perfect now. Literally. And the NFC’s contenders are more flawed than those in the AFC, which contains the only two remaining one-loss teams. If Washington can topple the Steelers, it can—in one well-timed performance like Monday’s—abruptly put an end to anyone’s season.
The Giants don’t have an experienced quarterback like Smith, and they don’t have close to as much defensive talent. They could still win the NFC East and could still pull off some playoff upsets because, well, any given Sunday.
But the G-Men don’t pack the same punch as Washington. The WFT isn’t just the most dangerous team in that division; it is quickly becoming the underdog that contenders will dread most in January.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.