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How the Commanders Saved Their Season by Not Panicking

Ron Rivera installed Taylor Heinicke as his starting QB and stayed the course everywhere else despite a 1–4 start. Now his team is in playoff contention. Plus, big moves by the Cowboys and Eagles pay off.

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A big shift is underway at the game’s most important position for the Commanders—and we’ll get to that in a second—but, interestingly enough, with that going on, Ron Rivera’s leading Washington out of the wilderness is more about staying the course everywhere else than anything else.

Confused? Well, we’ll let Rivera explain why—through a 1–4 start—he wouldn’t waver.

“Even though we got beat, you watched them play and then when you broke the tape down, you went to that little finite mentality that we have as coaches, and we watch certain plays and we say, Goddammit, look how f---ing close we are,” Rivera says. “If we can sustain that block a half a step longer, if the quarterback has a half a second more, it’s those types of things. And you sit there and go, Dang. Or on defense, Hey, we gotta get that switch right.

Commanders coach Ron Rivera during his team's Week 11 win over the Texans.

Rivera's Commanders stand eighth in the NFC playoff race after their win over the Texans.

“I mean, we were so, so close, Albert. I mean, we really were.”

That the Commanders were right on the doorstep kept Rivera from overreacting—in any way to everything around him—even with pitchforks alternately pointed at each of his coordinators over the past couple of months.

“You don’t make changes to make changes—to show people you’re doing something—if you believe in the people that you have,” he continues. “I mean, I’ve always felt the things that we did with Jack [Del Rio on defense] our first year [2020], we can continue to do, and then obviously we had the down year last year and for specific reasons. But at the end of the day, you gotta keep plugging away. You gotta keep showing people you believe in them.

“It’s the same thing with Scott [Turner] and the offense. Our first four games, everybody wanted to get rid of our offense because, ‘Oh, it doesn’t ...’ Well, our running back, he gets shot and we don’t have him for the first four games, and then it took him a couple more before he got his footing back. And now he’s just starting to come into his own.”

Even better, as Turner’s unit and Del Rio’s unit have come together, the bounces and close calls have started to go Washington’s way—and there was a prime example off the top of the Commanders’ 23–10 win in Houston. On the second play of the game, Taylor Heinicke threw one up, trying to give Terry McLaurin a chance to come down with a big gainer. The problem? He overthrew McLaurin, and Texans rookie Jalen Pitre was deeper than McLaurin and in position for the easy interception.

Only in this case, Pitre dropped the pick, and Washington never looked back.

“In the past,” Rivera continued, “maybe somebody catches it. And next thing you know, we’re in a dogfight all the way through.”

Instead, four plays later, the Commanders responded with Kendall Fuller picking off Davis Mills at the Houston 37 and scoring to give Washington a lead it would never give back.

That ignited a 20–0 first half in which Washington outgained Houston 246–5 and had 14 first downs to the Texans’ one. By the time the half was over, so was the game. And you might have to consider Caron Wentz’s time as an NFL starter over, too, at least for the time being.

Now, Heinicke, to be sure, was no superstar Sunday, throwing for 164 yards and a 78.6 rating on 12-of-22 passing. But he was steady, again, and we’ve seen flashes of brilliance and the belief of his teammates and Rivera in him. Which is why, as we spoke Sunday night, Rivera was ready to declare it Heinicke’s team. He talked with the quarterbacks last week, and now he’s landed there on who gets the keys to the offense.

“Yes, Taylor’s our starter,” Rivera told me. “And the big thing is, it’ll always be about one game at a time. This is not, Oh, he’s the starter for the rest of the year. No, we’ll talk only one game at a time. I don’t want people to get us ahead of anything. I want to stay focused on one game at a time, not, Oh, you got a shot at the playoffs. You can beat the Giants.

“No. No. We have to play Atlanta first, and then we play New York and we’ll see what happens. This is not about predicting or anything like that. This is staying focused on one at a time, one at a time.”

That said, Rivera reiterated his main point here: If Heinicke keeps playing well, the job is his.

“That’s the fair way to put it, because that’s the way I’ll judge it,” he continues. “And that is, and this is, about one week at a time. I don’t want anybody to be looking over their shoulder.”

Which, really, is how it’s worked everywhere else on the field for the Commanders for quite a while.

Cowboys running back Tony Pollard scores on a pass from Dak Prescott against the Vikings in Week 11.

Pollard took apart the Vikings' defense with 80 yards rushing and 109 yards passing and two scores.

Cowboys fans got their wish Sunday—and not just with a 40–3 blowout of the Vikings, but also with an enhanced role for Tony Pollard. And it’s hard to blame the fans for wanting to see more of Pollard as Ezekiel Elliott’s gotten a little long in the tooth (in running back years, anyway). Pollard’s skill and explosiveness jump off the screen.

What’s complicated matters has been the presence of two-time NFL rushing champion Elliott in front of Pollard over the past four years.

On Sunday, and maybe for the first time with both backs available, we saw a Dallas staff lean more heavily on Pollard than Elliott, and Mike McCarthy’s crew was paid off handsomely on the back end of that deal. Pollard carried the ball 15 times for 80 yards, churning out 5.3 yards per carry, and he did even more damage in the passing game with 109 yards and two scores on six catches.

“I mean, it means a lot,” Pollard says of his workload. “With Zeke coming back, still being able to go out there and produce, both of us being productive, getting two touchdowns on the day and just having a good game all around, it means a lot.”

Another difference was seeing Elliott in a short-yardage role—he finished with 42 yards on 15 carries, and both of his touchdowns were from a yard out.

Conversely, Pollard’s touchdowns came in the air and with a lot of flare.

The first score came in the two-minute drill at the end of the first half with the ball on the Vikings’ 30. Pollard ran a swing route to the right flat, Dak Prescott checked the ball down to him and the rest was bound to happen. He broke angles that Jordan Hicks and Patrick Peterson were taking to get to him, turned on the jets and scored untouched.

“Dak did a good job going through his reads, through his progressions, and he ended up coming down to me on the check-down,” Pollard says. “Dalton [Schultz], he did a great job holding the block for me down the field, and we were able to execute and get into the end zone.”

The second touchdown for Pollard came less than three minutes into the second half, with the coaches’ finding a way to get their tailback matched up on Hicks.

“That was just preparing all week, watching film, seeing how the guys play and just trying to maximize the opportunities that were there,” Pollard says. “We just felt like there was a chance we could get that route on them and we did a good job executing. I wasn’t really surprised [that Hicks was on me], because that’s really all that they could use. Because we had receivers on the field and tight ends.

“Everyone else was pretty much covered. So the linebacker was the only one left for me.”

Pollard’s first touchdown made it 20–3, and his second one made it 30–3.

And it didn’t get a whole lot more complicated than that for a Dallas team that’s now 7–3 and looking forward to an important Thanksgiving Day showdown with the Giants, who are also 7–3 after losing Sunday to the Lions.

What we did get, though, is a little peek at just how good Dallas’s offense can be, with the unit as healthy as it’s been all year now, and Prescott starting to hit his stride. Remember, the receivers room’s been dealing with injuries since August and September, the tailbacks both have been beaten up and Prescott missed over a month.

“I wouldn’t even want to put a ceiling on it,” Pollard says, laughing. “I’d just say just stay tuned and watch us week in and week out.”

There’ll be plenty of opportunities to do just that.

Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham sacks Colts quarterback Matt Ryan to help close out Sunday's Week 11 game in Indianapolis.

Graham's sack of Ryan helped the Eagles close out the Colts and improve to 9-1 on the season.

The Eagles weren’t lacking in motivation after falling behind 13–3 in Indianapolis on the heels of their first loss Monday night against the Commanders.

But just in case anyone was dragging, there were two guys in uniform new to the team who could bring a fresh perspective on the opportunity sitting right in front of the Eagles. And so, as I see it, getting defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh was valuable for the Eagles on Sunday and will be going forward for a number of reasons, on the field and off it.

That much was clear when Brandon Graham, the dean of the Eagles’ defense, got a load of his fellow 34-year-old Joseph’s vision for where all this is headed for Philadelphia.

“He was just saying he had a dream like he was gonna be on a really good team,” Graham said from the team plane. “And he loves the vibes here. He’s just saying how he loved the vibes, the energy on the sideline. He was like, Man, I was just on my couch. Now, I’m out here.’ He’s a big help. Him and Suh today, them boys went out and got a half sack together, and I just feel like it was meant to be when stuff like that happens.”

This wasn’t a cheap sack, either—Suh and Joseph got to Matt Ryan midway through the third quarter on a Colts possession that started on Indy’s own 47. The sack put Ryan’s unit in second-and-16 from the 41, and two plays later, the Colts were punting. Which only helped push the game into the fourth quarter, where Philly took control.

And once again, in that situation, it wound up being their quarterback, Jalen Hurts, taking the game by the neck. First, he marched the team 60 yards in five plays highlighted by a 23-yard scramble and a 22-yard touchdown pass to Quez Watkins. Then, after a costly (or seemingly so) fumble from A.J. Brown, Hurts and the offense would go 75 yards in 11 plays to give the Eagles a 17–16 lead, with the quarterback scoring on a designed run for seven yards.

“He’s a gamer—somebody that wants the ball,” Graham says. “Feel like he has a lot to prove, playing more with that mindset. But I just love how cool, calm and collected he is with everything, the way he processes information. I never really see him rattled too much. He stays consistent. That’s one thing I can say, through the wins and the losses, there’s always something to be learned with him—and I’m just thankful that he’s on our team.

“He definitely has the mindset that you want as a quarterback.”

After that, it was Graham himself taking matters into his own hands—puncturing the Colts’ hopes on a third-and-8 from the Indy 40. On the play, Graham took a lesson from watching Josh Sweat rush earlier in the afternoon. Sweat had gone too far upfield in pursuit and opened lanes for Ryan to step up in the pocket, scramble and make a play.

“And I got in on the one play and then went straight to bull rush,” Graham says about working on the move during the week. “Matt Ryan just happened to be standing right there. It was so nice, because you know how much I just wanted to help the team in the best way I could.”

And Graham did that, as did Hurts and Suh and Joseph, which led to the big bounce-back for the Eagles.

Can Philly keep it going? Well, as Graham sees it, the moves to add the two defensive tackles should be taken as a signal from the front office to the roster—“100%, it’s all in. You go all in. I feel like that’s the message they sent when they grabbed the guys like that.”

Of course, Graham himself doesn’t need to be convinced. He’s already there, all in on the belief that the team he’s on now can be as good as the one he won a championship with five years ago. And at 9–1, he sees the 2022 Eagles having a good case that they’re pretty similar, at least makeup-wise, to where they were back then.

“I do. I do. I see how we handle each other. I see how we talk to each other during adversity. All that stuff matters, man,” Graham says. “I think that how we respond to the bad stuff is what makes us a great team. And I love just the team. We don’t just be pointing fingers. I’ve been a part of that, where people are like, Well, I did my job. It’s like, No, I'm gonna do my job better just so I can help the team.”

And it seems, at least to Graham, like the Eagles have a lot of guys operating that way, just like they did in 2017.

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