“This one’s special just because how hard everything was, how tough everything was, how it’s been on the guys and the organization,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “There’s a great group of young men in there, and we’re trying to do things the right way. It’s really a cool thing to come out and get the division.”
Smith fought through a right calf strain that worsened, and he relied on the pillars of his game to help his team to an early lead that it would hold on to, even as he struggled and his mobility was limited.
Flashy, it wasn’t. Pretty, it definitely wasn’t.
“In the beginning of the game, felt pretty good moving around and feeling light on my feet,” Smith said. “Definitely the second half, though, obviously I [was] feeling it a little bit. … Certainly a bunch of plays I wish I had back but good enough to go. I felt good enough.”
In the first half, Smith did his job, leading Washington on long drives consisting of short, quick passes to a variety of receivers and protecting the ball at all costs. He managed the tempo and managed the game.
“I thought he started out really well,” Rivera said. “I thought there were a lot of good things that happened. I think at one point we got a little too cautious — I shouldn’t say cautious, but I think [offensive coordinator] Scotty [Turner] was trying to get the ball out of his hands quickly and just kind of take care of him. Just trying to make sure we kept him upright.”
Washington snapped its season-long scoring drought on its opening possession, taking more than eight minutes to run 15 plays and gain 91 yards with a five-yard touchdown pass from Smith to the also-hobbled Terry McLaurin. The second-year wide receiver underwent around-the-clock treatment alongside Smith to recover enough from a high-ankle sprain to be able to play Sunday.
“Thursday, I started turning the corner,” McLaurin said. “I knew I had a chance to play, and nobody was going to tell me different after that. … As the game goes on, you get a little sore, you get a little banged up. But that’s football. I don’t want to make this about my injury or make it seem like I did some heroic thing coming back, because at the end of the day you want to put yourself in the best situation to help your team.”
McLaurin’s early touchdown set up Washington well and spurred more big plays.
Rookie Kam Curl, whose versatility allowed his role to evolve from sub-package defensive back to game-changing strong safety, intercepted Philadelphia quarterback Jalen Hurts on the Eagles’ subsequent drive, giving the ball back to the Washington offense only 11 seconds after it left the field.
Washington quickly expanded its lead, despite a failed third and seven, when Dustin Hopkins nailed a 42-yard field goal to make it 10-0 in the first quarter. But in a game Washington should have handily won — against an Eagles team that had already been booted from playoff contention and had ruled out many of its key players — it began to unravel.
The defense, felled by costly mistakes and an inability to slow Hurts, chipped in 31 penalty yards on Philadelphia’s first scoring drive before Hurts waltzed into the end zone for a six-yard touchdown early in the second quarter. Six minutes later, Hurts did it again, setting up a second six-yard rushing touchdown with a 30-yard completion on a failed blitz by Washington.
Whereas Philadelphia had suddenly found a rhythm on third downs, Washington lost its rhythm as Smith grew more limited by his injury. His second sack resulted in a three-and-out, which was followed by underthrown passes to his running backs and a missed opportunity for a touchdown while under pressure. As the rush neared, Smith threw the ball away just as Cam Sims emerged wide open in the corner of the end zone on a blown coverage by Philadelphia.
But by then Smith was still able to compensate for the misses, to mask the mistakes and keep Washington’s young offense poised. The very next play, as Washington trailed 14-10 with 26 seconds left in the half, Smith threw a bullet to tight end Logan Thomas, who had less than a yard of separation from his defender and leaped for the touchdown.
“I thought he did a good job, especially in the two-minute drive,” Rivera said of Smith. “The opening drive and two-minute drive are about as good as it gets, it really is. And it just shows you that when we’re clicking, we can click. There’s room for improvement for us as a football team, though.”
Washington went into halftime with the hope of double-dipping and starting the second half with another score. But the efficient and clean game Smith had been executing disappeared, and Washington instead began the third quarter with two three-and-outs and an interception by Smith, whose short pass to J.D. McKissic bobbled off the running back’s chest and into the arms of safety Marcus Epps at Washington’s 15-yard line.
The defense allowed the Eagles to creep to its 4-yard line but no farther, forcing a turnover on downs to keep the score at 17-14 in favor of Washington. Still, Smith and the offense failed to pad its lead, so Philadelphia resorted to extreme measures to help Washington accept a gift it so resisted.
Hurts was benched in the fourth quarter, despite being healthy and having played a solid game to that point. Nate Sudfeld took over at quarterback and promptly threw an interception — which Washington returned with Smith’s second pick of the day, after Thomas fell during his route and Eagles linebacker T.J. Edwards capitalized.
Rivera said he “thought about” changing quarterbacks but opted to stick with Smith and their game plan.
Washington was aided by a Sudfeld fumble two plays later that rookie Chase Young scooped up before sprinting upfield 10 yards to set up his offense at Philadelphia’s 25-yard line.
After a holding call on tackle Morgan Moses and a pass by Smith that was batted down at the line, Washington begrudgingly accepted the chance to expand its lead to 20-14 with another 42-yard field goal by Hopkins midway through the fourth.
Yet even as the NFC East mockery from fans and media alike seemingly reached its peak, Washington continued to fight its good fortune. Steven Sims Jr. muffed a punt (he recovered), Smith fumbled on a bobbled snap (he, too, recovered), and Washington spurned a fourth-down conversion (courtesy of an Eagles penalty, no less) to eventually limp to the finish line with the victory, the NFC East title in hand and a first-round game against the Bucs on the books for Saturday night.
The victory and return to the playoffs comes at a price; Washington will pick 19th, at the earliest, in April’s draft, instead of 10th had it lost, and it will get a tougher 2021 schedule as the top team in its division. But Rivera and his players celebrated without inhibition Sunday, concerned not about the potentially tougher road ahead, or the ways in which Philadelphia made it easier for them, but about their sweet victory.
Rivera lauded his players for persevering and reminded them they accomplished what no one thought they could. Then the locker room erupted into a club, with music blasting and players dancing while wearing burgundy T-shirts that read “Won Not Done.”
Smith, in a quieter meeting with reporters, held up the message on his shirt during a video conference and grinned. “All I care about is it says division champs,” he said. “Still alive.”
Smith finished 22 for 32 for 162 yards, two touchdowns, a pair of interceptions and a 75.3 rating. But he remained standing, and he guided Washington to the unthinkable.
“Seeing a guy like that, who’s been through as much as he has and just continues to fight and continues to put himself in position to help this team, you can’t give him enough credit for that,” McLaurin said. “ … For all that we’ve been through as a team, all that he’s been through individually, this one’s pretty sweet.”