“I’m glad it was a grind to the end,” Rivera said in his postgame video conference.
He wore a red T-shirt that proclaimed Washington division champions and talked about a year that had been nothing less than a fight, about a group of young players who had won five of their last seven games to find themselves the unlikeliest of playoff teams. He did not seem to care about winning the title with a losing record or the fact that Eagles Coach Doug Pederson treated the night like a preseason game, sitting nine starters and playing his third-string quarterback in the fourth quarter.
For a franchise that has needed some good news for a long time, making the playoffs was all that mattered.
The other day, when pressed to come up with a definition for his team, the most he could say was: “They truly are a resilient bunch.”
Never had this team felt more resilient than Sunday night. The offense could barely move. The defense kept committing penalties. Washington turned the ball over twice on interceptions and fumbled a punt for the second straight week. And yet it somehow won.
There was Alex Smith, the Washington quarterback whose career should have been over two years ago after the gruesome snap of his right leg and the 17 surgeries to root out an infection that seemed to make it impossible for him to play again. Smith not only had come back this year but had become the stabilizing leader the team needed, the primary reason for a four-game winning streak, until a calf injury to that right leg kept him out the previous 2½ games.
He hardly looked able to move, and after a few minutes the Eagles sensed it. They came hard for him, and he appeared trapped. He couldn’t evade the rush. He hurried his throws, sometimes never seeing wide-open receivers. An early 10-0 Washington lead turned into a 14-10 deficit.
But nobody has come to embody Rivera’s notion of resilience more than Smith. As the first half wound down and Washington took over on its 45-yard line with 1:24 left after a good punt return, Smith could sense the opportunity. He peddled in motion for a moment, almost willing his leg to loosen, then managed to somehow move enough to lead Washington 55 yards on nine plays, finally throwing a touchdown pass to tight end Logan Thomas in the back of the end zone for a 17-10 halftime lead.
“We have enough points to win,” Rivera said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio told the defensive players at halftime.
There, too, were those defensive players, up against the goal line late in the third quarter after a Smith pass had wobbled high, bouncing off the hands of running back J.D. McKissic and into the arms of Philadelphia safety Marcus Epps at the Washington 15.
Washington’s defensive line kept elusive Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts scrambling from danger, throwing off-balance, missing his receivers. When Pederson — with nothing to play for and therefore nothing to lose — chose not to kick a field goal on fourth and goal from the 4, the pressure surged again, and Hurts threw too low into the end zone.
This Washington team isn’t good enough to win with beauty. It is far from the Kansas City Chiefs. Everything is ugly. It doesn’t have enough decent players on offense to score big. Aside from defensive end Chase Young and wide receiver Terry McLaurin, it lacks any true stars. Mostly, it has a lot of young players, some hope for the future and what tackle Morgan Moses called “grit.”
“Nobody else bet on us,” he said after the game. “But we will bet on ourselves.”
When it was over, when the division had been won, there was no wild celebration across the middle of the field. It was late. The air was heavy and wet. Fog was rolling in around the top of the vacant stadium. A team employee held a box of division championship caps, and the players put them on. A few took selfies. Some coaches posed for group photos. Otherwise, it seemed tame, like something survived rather than seized.
But there was also a sense that a franchise that has stumbled so much these past several years took a step toward better days. Winning a division at 7-9 might not mean much to many NFL teams, but on Sunday night it was huge for this one. One by one, players came to a table set up in the locker room to look into a videoconference camera and talk about learning to win, playing for one another and building a “culture.”
“This one was special because of how hard it was and how tough it was on the guys,” Rivera said.
As he spoke, the lights in the stadium outside turned off, dousing the field in darkness. The NFL’s regular season was over. The run was finished for every team with a losing record. Every team but one. The lights were still on in the locker room where safety Kam Curl said the party was “turned up.”
It might have been ugly. It might have been a slog. The title, like everything for this team, was a fight to the end. And yet no one seemed to mind.