LANDOVER, Md. -- The final drive began with nearly 11 minutes left in the game, with the Washington Football Team nursing an eight-point lead. During its previous two wins, Washington used time-consuming drives to drain the clock and finish with points.
On Monday, as the players started to repeat that success, it was natural to think: Here they go again. And now, in the midst of a three-game winning streak one year after closing strong to win the NFC East, it's natural to ask: Can they do it again?
Washington's 17-15 win against the Seattle Seahawks on Monday moved it into the NFC's seventh and final playoff spot -- a position nobody predicted for it when it entered the bye week 2-6. Washington (5-6) is now two games behind the first-place Dallas Cowboys; it was four games back before the streak started. Six games remain, so anything is possible -- including a collapse.
"We haven't arrived yet," Washington defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said.
Washington rallied from a 2-7 hole to win the NFC East in 2020, but it is very unlikely it can win the division this season with a sub-.500 record. However, a wild-card berth might be doable, and Washington is more tested in 2021.
It lost its starting quarterback, veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, in the second quarter of the season opener. It has not had its starting defensive ends on the field together during the winning streak -- Montez Sweat missed the games with a broken jaw; Chase Young tore his ACL during the first win of the streak against Tampa Bay. The offense is down to its fourth center.
A prized offseason acquisition, receiver Curtis Samuel, has appeared in only three games but appears finally recovered from his groin injury. Their top tight end, Logan Thomas, missed five games with a hamstring injury.
Last season, Washington was led in part by quarterback Alex Smith and his comeback story. This season, it's Taylor Heinicke and his NFL rags-to-riches story.
So there are similarities, but in many ways this team is better. Of its six losses, five have come to teams that currently have a winning record. Last season, six of the nine losses were to teams that finished with losing records.
And this team's injury losses speak to its depth. In coach Ron Rivera's first offseason the organization bypassed big-name free agents, but added depth and inexpensive standouts. That included key players such as Thomas, running back J.D. McKissic and safety Kamren Curl, a seventh-round pick who has become a valuable starter. Other backups such as offensive linemen Cornelius Lucas and Wes Schweitzer became starters because of injuries to others.
In the offseason Washington signed veteran offensive tackle Charles Leno Jr., who has started and had a solid season, and traded for left guard Ereck Flowers, who has done the same. Journeyman returner/receiver DeAndre Carter has become a key contributor on offense, with 18 catches and three touchdowns.
"We have better players in positions, and part of the reason they're better is because they're a year older and part of the reason they're better is just because they are better," Rivera said. "I like what we did with the offensive line. That group is better."
Defensively, their three-safety alignment with Curl, Landon Collins and Bobby McCain, has been beneficial -- especially with Collins and Curl. Collins would prefer to play full-time safety, but has embraced the role of hybrid safety/linebacker while Curl's ability to play deep or in the box allows for playcalling versatility.
After Monday's game, Heinicke threw a rock at a whiteboard in the locker room -- symbolizing David taking down Goliath. It's a new tradition started by Rivera after the team upset Tampa Bay on Nov. 18. Rivera said they will continue this theme, even as they keep winning.
"Mostly because of the perception out there," he said. "It's something these guys resonate with."
Not that they always feel like heavy underdogs.
"I don't feel like I'm surprised," Heinicke said of the streak. "You have faith in all those guys and you trust them. We're all doing what we're coached to do, we're executing at a high level right now. If we keep doing this, we keep giving our team chances to win."
There is also bonding. During his news conference after the game, Heinicke beamed as he gave the offensive line a "shoutout" for its work during the streak, despite multiple players being injured. At the end of Thomas' news conference, he asked the media if he could say one thing. Then he declared: "Kam Curl is a top-five safety in this league."
Rivera's coaching career has featured strong finishes. His record in the final eight games during a full season was 42-30 entering this season. In the five seasons his teams posted a losing record in the first half, they finished with a winning one in the second half four times.
This year, Washington has played a difficult schedule and suffered injuries. It has lost its top two trainers to a DEA investigation. Yet the team has persevered.
"I love our resilience," Rivera said. "I've got a lot of respect for the way our guys have handled it. There's been a lot of adversity circling us since we got here, a lot of it we had nothing to do with."
Last season, they dealt with it and eventually won. They have started to do the same thing this year.