- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2021

LANDOVER — Dustin Hopkins wanted someone to check on his mom. If she had been watching “Thursday Night Football,” she would have seen her son miss a 48-yard kick in the final seconds — only for him to get a second chance. New York’s Dexter Lawrence jumped offsides, pushing the Washington Football Team up five yards.

And with the closer distance, Hopkins nailed the game-winner.

“She probably had a heart attack,” Hopkins said after Washington’s 30-29 win over the New York Giants.

Thursday wasn’t pretty for the Burgundy and Gold. Coach Ron Rivera said the team was “fortunate” to get a win. The defense, for a second straight outing, had far too many breakdowns and penalties. Taylor Heinicke, the team’s starting quarterback in place of an injured Ryan Fitzpatrick, threw a bone-headed, almost-unfathomable interception with less than three minutes left backed up inside the 20. And ultimately, the victory came against the Giants — an uneven team that is now off to an 0-2 start for the fifth straight year. 

But Washington’s players and coaches did more than exhale upon winning its first game of the year. They celebrated. And for Rivera, the win also taught him about this year’s group in ways he perhaps needed to see. 

So much of this season, Rivera has said, is about maturity for Washington. After tasting the playoffs last year, the coach openly wondered if his team would be disciplined enough to handle — and to build upon — that success.  Could they handle the heightened expectations? 

Rivera may not be closer to definitively answering that question, just two weeks into the season, but he said he was struck by how “resilient” his team proved to be in a much-needed game against a divisional foe. 

“It reminded me of last year’s team,” Rivera said. “Just in the way they stuck at it and kept fighting and kept fighting.”

If Thursday’s game was about learning lessons for Rivera, then the biggest revelation might have been Heinicke. Making just his second regular-season start of his career, and first after last year’s playoff performance, the 28-year-old was effective — completing 73% of his passes for 336 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He demonstrated a solid connection with wide receiver Terry McLaurin (11 catches, 107 yards for a touchdown), in particular. 

More than just the stats, Heinicke twice engineered go-ahead drives for Washington in the fourth quarter. For the first, Heinicke needed just two plays to get Washington in the end zone: He hit running back J.D. McKissic on a wheel route down the sideline for a 56-yard gain and then connected with tight end Ricky Seals-Jones on a 19-yard completion for the touchdown. 

The second comeback stuck out even more. After all, Heinicke almost cost Washington the game just the possession. With 2:22 left, needing to just get a few first downs to ice the game, Heinicke threw a lazy pass in the flat — leading to an easy interception by Giants cornerback James Bradberry. When Heinicke returned to the sideline, the quarterback slammed his helmet out of anger, Rivera said. 

But the way Heinicke regained his composure, Rivera said, was notable. From the sideline, Rivera said he saw a collected Heinicke lead Washington in the two-minute drill to set up Hopkins’ game-winner. On that drive, Heinicke went 6 of 8 for 36 yards before the spike, getting the ball to the 30-yard line with six seconds remaining. 

“I was really frustrated with myself, but a lot of guys on the team came up to me, saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to get the ball back for you and you’re going to have another chance to score,’” Heinicke said, later adding, “I really had to get my composure about me and my teammates great job of having my back.” 

This was an audition of sorts for Heinicke. With Fitzpatrick sidelined for a reported six to eight weeks, Rivera entrusted the starting job to Heinicke — who was out to prove that last year’s thrilling playoff performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wasn’t a fluke. 

Leading up to the game, Heinicke said his childhood dream was to be an NFL starter and this would be his chance to sustain it. Thursday marked the third start of the 2015 undrafted free agent’s career, including the playoffs — and his first win. 

Heinicke, though, wasn’t the only question mark entering Thursday’s game. Over the weekend in a loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, Washington’s defense hardly resembled the top-five unit the group was in 2020. Upon watching the film, Rivera identified too many busted coverages, too many missed assignments. 

Against the Giants, Washington was better — but not nearly to the point that would quiet skeptics. Washington failed to contain Giants quarterback Daniel Jones on the ground — allowing him to rush for 95 yards on nine attempts, including a 46-yard gain. Jones’ QB-keeper on the latter heavily resembled the 49-yard gain the quarterback had against Washington last October, down to safety Landon Collins biting heavily on the fake.

The Giants, too, missed a lot of opportunities that could have put the game away much earlier. In the fourth, for instance, wide receiver Darius Slayton dropped an easy reception in the end zone that would have put New York ahead by two scores in the final six minutes. Giants kicker Graham Gano made all five of his kicks — an indication New York settled for far too many field goals.

Still, Washington’s defense answered in crucial moments, none more so than forcing New York into a 35-yard yarder with 2:05 left. 

The stop allowed Washington to get the extra stoppage for the two-minute warning and start the drive with at least one timeout. Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, who had two of the team’s four sacks, said the stoppage was a “big credit to (the team’s) mental toughness.” It would have been easy to fold, he said. 

Washington didn’t do that and made the stand. And along the way, the team caught a break, as well. 

“I don’t know how we did it,” defensive end Chase Young said, “but I would say we did it together.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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