PHILADELPHIA - It’s win and you’re in the NFL postseason for the Washington Football Team on Sunday night.
For the Eagles, it’s a 60-minute countdown before the arguments begin over who should be the team’s top draft pick in April, and perhaps more importantly who will be stewarding the process that gets the organization to that point.
The WFT, of course, hasn’t had much success recently and even if it beats the Eagles would finish at 7-9. That's the bad news, the goods news is that Ron Rivera's first season as head coach would also earn the 16th division crown in franchise history and its first since 2015.
Washington, which upset the Eagles in Week 1, is also searching for its first series sweep of Philadelphia since 2016, also the last time it beat the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.
All eyes are on Alex Smith for the WFT, the veteran quarterback who made a miraculous comeback from a devastating leg injury suffered in 2018 that required 17 surgeries and threatened his life. The veteran game-manager is now dealing with a calf injury that has caused him to miss the last two games, both losses for Washington. He was able to practice in a limited fashion on Thursday and Friday and is listed as questionable for the game.
With Smith, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, starting the WFT is 4-1 this season and when he isn’t the record is a dismal 2-8.
“I’ll tell you something, I really have a lot of respect for Alex Smith, for him and his family,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson told SI.com's EagleMaven.
Pederson, of course, had Smith as his starting QB in Kansas City when the coach was the offensive coordinator under Andy Reid.
“Again, the way he has come back from this adversity in his career with the injury and putting him in a position to play this season and potentially start this game Sunday night. My hat goes off to him," said Pederson.
“It doesn't surprise me that he's been in this position because our time in Kansas City for three years, just watching him work, the work ethic that he has for himself, number one, to be the best player that he can be, but also within the team, how he can elevate and make things run smoothly with his offenses.”
If Smith can’t answer the bell, Rivera might have to try to limp over the finish line with his fourth starting quarterback of the season, former Old Dominion star Taylor Heinicke, who was on the precipice of moving on from professional football and back to ODU to finish up his engineering degree when the WFT signed him to the practice squad earlier this month.
Dwayne Haskins, the No. 15 overall pick in the 2019 draft who was the starter against the Carolina Panthers last Sunday, was waived earlier this week and went unclaimed.
The Eagles, meanwhile, are at 4-10-1 and are looking to implement Jim Schwartz’s “no-hat rule” to finish off a terribly disappointing season.
“We've got to have a no-hat rule this week. We can't let opponents put division win hats on at the Linc,” the Eagles defensive coordinator said. “There's a lot of pride in that, and all our focus has to be to accomplishing that this week.”
OFFENSIVE SCHEME: Scott Turner runs an offense that has had to use four different quarterbacks and is going into Sunday night with its top two playmakers - receiver Terry McLaurin and running back Antonio Gibson - banged-up in addition to Smith.
Obviously, it’s an all-hands-on-deck mentality for the WFT, however. Turner’s system is typical NFL fare when it comes to the default setting of 11 personnel but there are some interesting wrinkles thanks to the versatility of tight end Logan Thomas, once a QB at Virginia Tech, and Gibson.
Pederson explained why it’s more successful when Smith is out there.
“He’s going to run the offense, he’s going to be efficient, he’s going to take shots when they’re there," Pederson said when discussing Smith. "He’s okay with throwing it into the flat or throwing it into a check-down because he knows he’s playing ahead of the chains and staying on the field because that’s what this league is about.
"That’s produced a lot of wins for him.”
The offense as a whole, however, Washington has struggled and is 30th overall in a 32-team league.
DEFENSIVE SCHEME: The strength of the WFT is the front where the organization has assembled top-tier talent for its 4-3 look.
Likely Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young was the final piece of the puzzle in an all-first-round unit that also includes edge rusher Montez Sweat and tackles Da’Ron Rayne and Jonathan Allen.
Washington is fourth in the NFL in total defense and No. 1 in second-half defense. The defense is also top 10 in pass defense (No. 3), points per game (No. 5), third-down defense (No. 7), fourth-down defense (No. 2), and red-zone defense (No. 3).
STRENGTH: The D-Line in Washington is outrageously talented. Young is going to be a superstar becoming just the fourth player and the first rookie in NFL history to record at least two games with at least one fumble recovery, a forced fumble, a sack, and a pass defended since the stats were first recorded in 1999. The others are in the Hall of Fame or will be: Khalil Mack, Jason Taylor and Julius Peppers.
Sweat leads the team with eight sacks and has become a pass-batting machine with six of them affected at the line of scrimmage, and Allen just engulfs interior blockers.
Meanwhile, the Eagles will be turning to their 14th different offensive line group in 16 games due to Jordan Mailata’s concussion.
WEAK LINK: As you might imagine with all the issues at QB the WFT has had trouble generating chunk plays and the ineffective offense is startlingly consistent, ranking as Nos. 26, 26, 25 and 25 in rushing offense, passing offense, points per game and third-down offense.
In other words, Washington isn’t running away from anyone.
McLaurin (ankle) and Gibson (toe) are the big-play guys and each was unable to practice on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday but are both listed as questionable for the game.
UNDER THE RADAR: Part of it is certainly playing behind that defensive line but linebacker Cole Holcomb has become a real difference-maker on the second level for Jack Del Rio’s defense and he flies to the football when opposing offensive lineman can’t get to the second level, something Allen typically takes care off.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: The Eagles offensive line vs. the WFT defensive line. With Mailata’s concussion, Philadelphia will be rolling out its 14th different unit on the OL, perhaps at the worst time.
Brett Toth, who was inserted at right tackle when Mailata went down against Dallas, with Matt Pryor flipping to left tackle will start. It remains to be seen where Jeff Stoutland will place Pryor and Toth with a week of practice available because both are better suited on the right side.
Also in the mix could be rookie practice-squad player Prince Tega Wanogho, a natural LT.
Either way, that doesn’t bode well against Young and Sweat.
OUTLOOK: If Smith, perhaps the NFL's best story this season, can go at an acceptable level the WFT likely is playoff-bound.
If he doesn't maybe Heinicke can build some kind of machine to get his teammates back down I-95 a little quicker with his engineering degree but Washington will not be celebrating in Lincoln Financial Field even with the Eagles playing it safe with any player dealing with an injury, most notably Fletcher Cox.
Philadelphia also ruled out Mailata (concussion), Miles Sanders (knee), Dallas Goedert (calf), Richard Rodgers (ankle) and DeSean Jackson (ankle) on offense and Derek Barnett (calf), Shaun Bradley (neck), and Duke Riley (biceps) on defense.
Calf injuries are generally tricky and the fact that Smith has already missed the time he has indicates a problem. He'll try to play but won't be anywhere near 100 percent and that means the NFC East title could be decided at MetLife Stadium earlier in the day.
The fact that the Eagles shut down so many players and are down to fumes at OT is just too much attrition.
JOHN MCMULLEN: Washington Football Team 17, Eagles 14 (8-6-1 on the season, 9-6 vs. the spread)
ED KRACZ: Washington Football Team 20, Eagles 17 (7-7-1 on the season, 7-8 vs. the spread)
John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John every Tuesday and Thursday on "The Middle" with Eytan Shander, Harry Mayes, and Barrett Brooks on SportsMap Radio and PhillyVoice.com. He’s also the host of Extending the Play on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen
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