In a season when the Washington Football Team faced one obstacle after another, one more journey down a difficult road wasn’t a big deal.
A depleted Philadelphia Eagles team made life difficult Sunday for Washington. But the team that changed its name this offseason didn’t care.
In the end, the club got what it wanted: Its first NFC East title since 2015.
Washington beat the Eagles 20-14 to become the third team to win a division title with a losing record. Washington won five of its final seven regular-season games to finish first at 7-9, one game ahead of the New York Giants.
The previous team to win the division title with a sub .500-record was the 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers in 2014, coached by Ron Rivera, now in charge with Washington. Both required improbable second-half runs. This time, Rivera had to overcome cancer while doing so.
Seattle won its division in 2010 at 7-9. Both the Panthers and Seahawks won their first playoff game.
Washington will host Tampa Bay (11-5) at 8:15 p.m. ET Saturday in the first round of the playoffs. The team was 3-13 a year ago and hired Rivera at season’s end.
“This one’s special just because of how hard it was, how tough it was, how it’s been on the guys, the organization,” Rivera said. “There’s a great group of young men in there and we’re trying to do things the right way.”
Sunday, Washington faced an Eagles team missing 10 starters for various reasons. Then in the fourth quarter, Philadelphia (4-11-1) inserted backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld to get him game action before the season ended.
Starting QB Jalen Hurts wasn’t effective throwing the ball (7-for-20, 72 yards), but his legs gave Washington fits with 34 yards and two rushing touchdowns.
But Washington had its own problems, as starting quarterback Alex Smith was playing with a strained right calf that limited his mobility. He was sacked three times and was intercepted twice. He did throw two touchdown passes as part of his 162-yard night.
However, nothing has come easily in this season, and Washington was used to having to scrap for a win. Indeed, it was appropriate that it had to scrap once more.
“It speaks way more about the team, the character we have,” Smith said. “Everything was stacked against us [this season].”
Philadelphia took a 14-10 lead in the second half but a drive before halftime, capped by a Smith touchdown pass to tight end Logan Thomas, gave Washington the lead for good. Then, late in the third quarter, Washington stopped Philadelphia on a fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard line to protect a three-point lead. It added a field goal in the fourth quarter for the final margin. The defense forced three turnovers, with rookie end Chase Young getting one of them on a fumble recovery. The franchise’s prized rookie also recorded a sack.
Washington made the playoffs for only the sixth time since owner Dan Snyder bought the team in 1999. It hasn’t won a playoff game since 2005, when it won at Tampa Bay.
“Oh, man, it’s been a while,” said right tackle Morgan Moses, in his sixth season with Washington. “The biggest thing from five years ago to now is the development of the team, where we’re moving, and having Coach Rivera. Like I told the guys all year, all we need is an opportunity to get in the dance. Once you get that ticket to the dance, who knows how far you go.”
Rivera pointed out during the past week that nobody expected Washington to be in this position. But this was also as much about nobody predicting the NFC East to be this bad. A 7-9 record for Washington wasn’t far-fetched; the team had a strong, young defensive corps, and after a chaotic 2019, Rivera’s steady hand calmed the organization. It helped, too, that Jack Del Rio gave Washington its best defensive coordinator in a decade.
No franchise endured more chaos during the summer, with name changes and allegations over past employees and with an owner battling with his three minority owners, all of whom want to sell. The team cut a possible starting running back in July, Derrius Guice, after he was arrested on multiple charges of assault and domestic violence. It cut former starting quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. a week ago.
Rivera was tasked to handle it all, serving as the face of the franchise. Then, on Aug. 20, Rivera disclosed that he had squamous cell cancer and, though it was caught in time and had a high survival rate, he would need to undergo treatments. They lasted seven weeks, with Rivera needing five sessions of proton therapy every week; every three weeks, he needed chemotherapy. He missed only three practices, but fatigue often overwhelmed him and he couldn’t coach the way he wanted, often leaving the facility late in the afternoon.
Then there was Smith, who overcame a gruesome leg injury that almost everyone anticipated would lead to his retirement. He fought the organization’s desire to put him on injured reserve and was finally inserted after Haskins was benched and his replacement, Kyle Allen, was injured.
Washington went 5-1 with Smith as a starter, 2-8 with anyone else. Since Smith arrived in Washington in 2018, the team is 11-5 in games he starts and 6-26 when anyone else does. His story — overcoming 17 surgeries and near-amputation of his right leg following his 2018 injury — helped inspire his teammates. His wife, Liz, had the leg brace he wore for eight months reshaped to resemble the Lombardi Trophy.
“Definitely one of the best Christmas gifts I’ve had,” Smith said.
Rivera noticed how winnable the East was early in the season when, after four weeks, nobody in the division had more than one victory. Rivera benched Haskins, ostensibly to start someone more experienced in their offense but also because they were severely displeased with his game-week preparation.
Even at 2-7, Washington remained alive.
“When we were 1-5, we could have stopped,” Young said. “We didn’t. That’s a testimony to the brotherhood.”
A four-game winning streak put Washington in control, where it remained despite entering Sunday with a two-game losing streak.
“One of the questions I’ve gotten early on is: what’s the character of this club? What’s the hallmark?” Rivera said on Friday. “Honestly, I couldn’t tell you that other than I think they truly are a resilient bunch.”