Despite Taylor Heinicke's star turn, Washington's season ends
The Washington Football Team seemingly had been ruled out before it even took the field Saturday night, so Coach Ron Rivera, a man driven by motivational phrases, pulled out a few more to inspire his young squad. "Why not us?" he asked. "Why not us? … All we need is a chance."

The odds stacked higher and higher against his team as its first-round playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers neared. But the play of a little-known quarterback and the resilience of Washington's defense proved Rivera's question valid.

Washington got its chance and turned its matchup with Tom Brady into a thriller before falling, 31-23, at FedEx Field. Although the loss ended the first year of the Rivera era in Washington, the team added another layer to its improbable run and created a new hero in undrafted quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who only a month ago was cramming for final exams in mathematics at Old Dominion University.

"A guy like him who works hard at what he does, he's created an opportunity for himself, and we'll see what happens," Rivera said. "But I'm just very proud of what he did, coming out and competing the way he did and helping us to get where we are today."

The sixth-year quarterback was appointed the starter Friday, he said, when it became apparent Alex Smith wouldn't be able to overcome the right calf strain he suffered weeks earlier.

"The biggest thing was Alex just felt that he couldn't escape [the rush], and with as aggressive as this defense is that we played, I just felt we didn't want to put him in a bad situation," Rivera said. "I hated to do it to Alex, but it was for the better, and Alex is unbelievable. Believe me: He's a hell of a man."

Heinicke had started only one NFL game, and he had never played in the postseason. But with a mix of deep passes and gutsy scrambles to keep his team in it - no small feat against a superior Bucs roster that averaged 30.8 points, third most in the NFL - Heinicke turned in the most efficient quarterback play Washington had seen all season, all after only a week of practice with the first-team offense.

"When he first got here about a month or so ago, I didn't really know too much about him," wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. "I knew he played in the system, and I knew he was a guy who had some potential. The first time I even caught a pass from him was last week, but he gained my respect. I have nothing but respect for number four. The way he came in and handled his business on a moment's notice when we found out that Alex was not going to be able to go, he was just prepared for his moment."

Heinicke finished 26 for 44 for 306 yards, one touchdown and an interception for a 78.4 passer rating that shortchanged his true efficiency. He also led the team with 46 rushing yards, including a stunning touchdown when he dived for the pylon, and overcame at least five drops from his receivers. That diving touchdown was one of four scoring drives for Washington and left Heinicke with a separated left AC joint - that he played through the rest of the game.

Washington's defensive line, typically its strength, struggled for much of the first half to get pressure on Brady, but momentum shifted late in the first half and continued into the second - when Washington typically came alive this season.

Tampa Bay notched an early lead, with a field goal on its opening drive and then a 36-yard touchdown catch by Antonio Brown, who sped past Jimmy Moreland in coverage. But the positive plays began to stack up for Washington: a pass breakup by cornerback Kendall Fuller on third and nine in the first quarter, a 36-yard completion to Cam Sims to rid the taste of an earlier drop, then Washington's first scoring drive, with Heinicke in charge.

Heinicke completed a pair of deep passes, for 24 and 18 yards, and picked up a pair of first downs on scrambles before running back J.D. McKissic ran two yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter. But an odd decision by Washington to attempt an onside kick provided an easy path to the end zone for the Bucs, who needed only four plays before Brady hit Chris Godwin for a 27-yard touchdown to make it 15-7.

"It was supposed to be more of a mortar kick, a chip kick," Rivera explained. "They had a situation that we felt we could take advantage of. ... Unfortunately, we didn't hit the kick like we wanted."

Adversity mounted when rookie running back Antonio Gibson, who had been dealing with turf toe, suffered a knee injury that appeared to hinder his production; his quickness and burst disappeared, placing even more pressure on Heinicke to produce. But as the first half neared an end, he found help from his defense, which finally got to Brady for a sack, courtesy of Montez Sweat. Daron Payne added two in the second half, and Washington landed seven hits on Brady. But Brady, even at 43, was still Brady; he finished 22 for 40 for 381 yards and two touchdowns. "He just made the throws that he needed to make," Fuller said. "He did the little things right, gave his guys opportunities."

Washington opened the second half with a seven-play, 52-yard drive that stalled in the red zone. But a 36-yard field goal by Dustin Hopkins brought Washington within 18-10, and the defense held up to provide more chances to close the gap. Washington forced a three-and-out on Tampa Bay's first drive of the half, then forced a fumble on its second, putting the ball in Heinicke's hands for another scoring drive.

Another long pass to Sims (for 19 yards) and another Heinicke scramble for a first down - and a little help from Tampa Bay with a penalty - helped Washington reach the 8-yard line. And with Gibson limited, Heinicke took over, scrambling and diving for a touchdown, his left arm toppling the pylon before he landed. "I reached out my arm, and when I hit the ground, I felt a little click or pop, and it didn't feel good after that," he said. "The next series, I got hit and hit the ground a couple of times and decided we should go in and look at it. It was an AC joint separation."

Heinicke headed to the locker room as backup Steven Montez began to warm up, and Tampa Bay kicked a 38-yard field goal to pad its lead. But Heinicke returned just in time to lead the offense back onto the field.

Although Washington soon allowed a Tampa Bay touchdown that expanded its lead to 28-16, Heinicke gutted out an 11-play, 75-yard drive that sealed the respect of his teammates. In pain, he completed eight of 10 passes, including a 23-yard completion to Cam Sims and a 16-yard pass to McLaurin before finding Steven Sims for an 11-yard touchdown.

Tampa Bay finalized its win with a 37-yard field goal with 2:54 remaining and then a stop on Washington's final drive, but Heinicke might have proved more about his future much earlier. "Hopefully, I deserve to be in this league a little longer," he said. "Again, I've been on the other side, not playing, being in the real world, and it's not fun. It's not as fun as this. So, again, I want to be in the NFL. I want to keep playing ball. It's a dream of mine, and I keep working towards it."

In a year when many predicted it to win only three games, Washington toppled the odds to lay a foundation for next season - and perhaps many after. Its unlikely playoff run revealed as much about its young talent as it did the cultural changes Rivera promised. Where the team heads next will be determined, in part, by the offseason. But for the first time in years, there is optimism that the Washington Football Team has turned a corner.

"It's been a long time," tackle Morgan Moses said. "I've probably been a part of more talented teams, but the group of guys in this locker room, I wouldn't trade them for the world."

Nicki Jhabvala, Washington Post, published 10 January 2021