- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Washington Football Team and much of the rest of the NFL spent the weekend in a blender, spinning around and around, scrambling to find a way to have as normal of a Week 15 as possible.

COVID-19 surges have thrown the league into near-chaos, with teams praying their players’ nasal swabs come back negative. More than 150 players tested positive for the coronavirus last week, with three teams having outbreaks of 20-plus players — the Washington Football Team, Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Rams. Those outbreaks caused the NFL to reschedule each of those three teams’ games, pushing them back two days apiece.

“I think it was what’s best for the league,” said Washington coach Ron Rivera on Saturday.

In addition to the postponements, the NFL announced new protocols on Thursday, which could allow vaccinated players to come off the COVID-19 list quicker than before. For example, a vaccinated player can be cleared if he produces two negative tests in the same day and is asymptomatic. Previously, the two tests had to come 24 hours apart. Rivera said Saturday that about half of the team’s players on the list were asymptomatic.

As of Sunday afternoon, Washington’s COVID-19 list — once long enough to field a full football game with 22 players — had fallen to 16 players. Defensive linemen Jonathan Allen, Montez Sweat, James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill came off the list Saturday, while wide receiver Cam Sims and defensive end Daniel Wise were removed Sunday.

“We’ve gotten some guys back off the list, so that’s been a plus,” Rivera said Sunday. “I think the guys have handled it pretty well. And the extra days, I think our guys have taken advantage of that.”

The two most important players on Washington’s COVID-19 list are quarterbacks Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen. Heinicke, the team’s starter since Ryan Fitzpatrick injured his hip in Week 1, tested positive on Friday — two days after Allen did.

The new rules and the rescheduling of the game allow for the possibility of one or both of the quarterbacks to test out in time for Tuesday’s night’s game in Philadelphia, which was originally scheduled for Sunday afternoon.

“I do know, having seen the [cycle threshold] numbers, that they’re all trending up, so that’s a good thing,” Rivera said Sunday about the potential of getting Heinicke and/or Allen back. “This is a tricky thing. It’s a health matter. Depending on how things go in the next 24 to 36 hours, we’ll know even more.”

If neither signal-caller can clear protocols, the team will either start practice squad quarterback Kyle Shurmur or Garrett Gilbert, who the team signed off New England’s practice squad on Thursday. Shurmur has never taken an NFL snap, while Gilbert, a sixth-round pick in 2014, has played in seven NFL games with one start.

Other key players on Washington’s COVID-19 list are cornerback Kendall Fuller, safety Kam Curl and defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis.

It’s not just the NFL. The NBA on Sunday postponed five games, the NHL shut down operations of six teams on Sunday and closed cross-border travel, while colleges and universities across the country are canceling, postponing or finding last-minute new opponents amid this latest COVID-19 surge.

The NFL’s improvised schedule could impact the playoff picture. All three teams with outbreaks — as well as their opponents — are in the playoff hunt with four weeks remaining.

Cleveland (7-6) was set to host Las Vegas (6-7) on Saturday night, but the Browns had 27 players spend time on the COVID-19 list last week, causing the NFL to push their home game back to Monday. Like Washington, both of Cleveland’s quarterbacks — starter Baker Mayfield and backup Case Keenum — were on the COVID-19 list as of Sunday afternoon. The Browns have 23 players — 11 of whom are starters — on the shelf due to COVID-19. Cleveland is competing to win the AFC North, while Las Vegas has a small chance to earn a wild-card spot.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the Rams’ COVID-19 list ballooned to 31 on Friday, and their game against the Seattle Seahawks was pushed back from Sunday to Tuesday night. The Rams now have 25 players in protocols. Los Angeles (9-4) is the top wild-card team in the NFC, with a chance to win the NFC West, while Seattle (5-8) is still in the hunt for an NFC wild-card spot.

For Washington (6-7) and Philadelphia (6-7), however, Tuesday’s game could be their most important of the season. The winner will be in prime position to earn an NFC wild-card spot, while the loser would be facing an uphill battle, likely requiring three straight wins to end the season, to make the playoffs.

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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