“I’m glad it was difficult until the end,” said Rivera in his video conference after the game.
He wore a red t-shirt proclaiming Washington Division champion and talked about a group of young players who had won five of their last seven games to themselves as that for over a year that had been nothing short of a struggle most unlikely playoff team to see. He didn’t seem to care if he lost the title or if Eagle’s coach Doug Pederson treated the night like a preseason game, sitting nine starters and playing his third quarterback in the fourth quarter.
For a franchise that has long needed good news, getting to the playoffs was all that mattered.
When he was recently pressured to find a definition for his team, all he could say was, “They really are a tough bunch.”
This team had never felt so resilient as on Sunday evening. The offense could hardly move. The defense continued to impose penalties. Washington flipped the ball twice in interception and fiddled with a boat for the second week in a row. And yet it somehow won.
There was Alex Smith, the Washington quarterback whose career should have been over two years ago after the gruesome crack on his right leg and 17 surgeries that resulted in an infection that made it impossible for him to play again. Not only had Smith come back that year, but he had become the stabilizing leader the team needed, the main reason they had a four-game streak until a right leg injury prevented him in the last 2½ games.
He seemed barely able to move, and after a few minutes the Eagles felt it. They came hard for him and he seemed trapped. He couldn’t escape the onslaught. He hurried to throw and sometimes never saw receivers wide open. An early 10-0 lead in Washington resulted in a 14:10 deficit.
But no one has come to embody Rivera’s idea of resilience more than Smith. When the first half came to an end and Washington took over the 45-yard line at 1:24 after a good punt return, Smith could feel the opportunity. He moved in motion for a moment, almost ready to loosen his leg, then managed to somehow move enough in nine games to run Washington 55 yards and eventually threw a touchdown pass to Logan 17 in the rear Part of the end zone -10 halftime lead.
“We have enough points to win,” said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to the defensive players at halftime.
There were also those defensive players who hit the goal line towards the end of the third quarter after a Smith pass waggled high and ricocheted off the hands of JD McKissic’s return into the arms of Philadelphia’s Marcus Epps at Washington 15.
Washington’s line of defense held elusive Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts from danger, throwing him off balance and missing his receivers. When Pederson – with nothing to play and therefore nothing to lose – decided not to score a field goal on the fourth and one goal from the fourth, the pressure rose again and Hurts threw too deep into the end zone.
This team in Washington is not good enough to win with beauty. It’s a far cry from the Kansas City Chiefs. Everything is ugly. There aren’t enough decent offensive players to score a big goal. Aside from Chase Young’s defensive end and broad receiver Terry McLaurin, he lacks real stars. Mostly it has a lot of young players, some hope for the future and what Morgan Moses calls “grit”.
“Nobody else bet on us,” he said after the game. “But we’ll bet on ourselves.”
When it was over, when the division was won, there was no wild celebration in the middle of the field. It was late. The air was heavy and wet. Fog rolled around the top of the empty stadium. A team employee held a box of championship caps in the division and the players put them on. Some took selfies. Some trainers posed for group photos. Otherwise it seemed tame, as if something had survived and not seized.
But there was also a feeling that a franchise that has stumbled so badly in recent years has taken a step towards better days. Winning a division 7-9 may not mean much to many NFL teams, but Sunday night it was huge for that team. One by one, the players came to a table in the locker room to look into a video conferencing camera and talk about how to win, play for each other, and build a “culture”.
“This one was special because it was so hard and how hard it was for the guys,” said Rivera.
As he spoke, the lights in the stadium outside went out, clearing the field in darkness. The NFL regular season was over. The run ended with a record loss for each team. Any team but one. In the locker room where Kam Curl said the party was “turned on” security, the lights were still on.
It could have been ugly. It could have been a slog. The title, like everything for this team, was a fight to the end. And yet nobody seemed to mind.