Sunday October 25th, 2015

Washington pulled off the biggest comeback in franchise history on Sunday, storming back from a 24–0 hole to hand Tampa Bay a heartbreaking 31–30 loss. Rather against the odds, Washington continues to hang around in the NFC East race.

Three thoughts on Sunday’s dramatic finish between two teams trying to claw back to .500:

1. Kirk Cousins gets it done: Is Cousins the long-term answer at quarterback for the Redskins? Probably not. Games like this one, however, reveal at least part of the reasoning behind sticking with him. Namely, he has shown the mental toughness his fellow Washington quarterbacks have not.

That is not always enough to overcome Cousins’s limitations, and the limitations of this Washington team as a whole. But, sometimes it makes a significant difference.

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Sunday, it all could have gone to hell before halftime even arrived. Washington picked up one first down in the first quarter, and that came thanks to a defensive penalty. On its first possession of quarter No. 2, Cousins fumbled. Tampa Bay’s Howard Jones picked up the loose ball and scored, giving the Buccaneers a shocking 24–0 lead with 8:19 left in the half. Had that deficit grown any larger, Jay Gruden may have had to toss Colt McCoy in at quarterback, just to save Cousins the embarrassment.

Cousins—and his teammates—made sure it never came to that.

The Redskins quickly marched 74 yards for a touchdown, Cousins taking it the final eight yards to pay dirt on an option play. Another score early in the third quarter, on a Cousins pass to Ryan Grant, pulled Washington within 10.

Gruden seized on the momentum by calling for an onside kick. Washington recovered, leading to another Cousins TD toss, this time to Jordan Reed. At that point the scoreboard read 24–21, and there was still a quarter and a half of football to be played.

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The final step in Washington’s comeback did not occur until the closing moments, and it was all Cousins. Starting with 2:24 left, down by six, he completed his first eight passes, setting his offense up inside the Tampa Bay 10. He needed a little luck—Bucs safety Chris Conte had a chance at a game-clinching interception—but eventually finished off the impressive march with another touchdown pass to Reed.

A comeback like the one Washington pulled off does not happen without outstanding quarterback play, and it does not happen if a team has no faith in its QB. Cousins may not be more than a low-ceiling starter who occasionally finds some magic, but he had enough Sunday.

This is his team for the foreseeable future.

2. Lovie Smith’s defense falters ... again: The 24–0 start obviously was a positive for Tampa Bay, but is any lead safe with the Buccaneers’ defense? Sure doesn't feel like it. Increasingly, that is an indictment on Smith.

Smith’s defense was porous throughout much of last season’s 2–14 flop, and Tampa Bay entered Sunday allowing nearly 30 points a game. (Not all of that is on the defense. The offense gave up 14 points on turnovers against Carolina three weeks ago, for example.) The key stops have been few and far between.

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There were plenty of opportunities to stem the tide Sunday, right on down to that final Washington drive. Because of the Bucs’ huge early lead, Washington all but abandoned its potent run game, something that should have worked to Smith’s advantage when he was dialing up calls.

Nope. Cousins torched Tampa Bay, with the Bucs’ only sack coming on that Jones scoop-and-score fumble return. Washington scored 24 points after halftime, with all three touchdowns coming through the air.

Smith obviously walked into a tough rebuild in Tampa Bay, but it’s never going to happen if he cannot fix his defense. That is Smith’s area of expertise, though the results do not show it.

3. A wasted effort from Jameis WinstonThe silver lining for Tampa Bay in Sunday’s loss is that Winston played his best game as a pro. Of course, you could flip it the other way and argue that wasting Winston’s outing makes everything feel worse, but ...

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Winston was sharp from the outset. He dropped a 40-yard TD in to Mike Evans just three minutes into the game, then added another to Donteea Dye a quarter later. All told, Winston finished 21 of 29 for 297 yards and those two touchdowns.

Sure, from the Bucs’ perspective, it would have been nice to see their rookie quarterback put the game on ice, but how much of the downturn in production was his fault? Tampa Bay scored on three of its first four possessions in the first half; the clock expired on the fifth. Winston’s opportunities were limited after halftime, both by that onside kick and by the Bucs’ self-inflicted wounds—penalties and the inability to score from Washington’s one-yard line among them.

There was a lot to like in Winston’s game, other than the final score.

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