ASHBURN — Ron Rivera couldn’t help but smile when a reporter noted this week that the Washington Commanders are now back in the thick of the NFL’s playoff race. Despite a 1-4 start, the Commanders now sit at 5-5 — and are only a half-game back from the final wild-card spot in the NFC.
But they aren’t the only team in the hunt. In addition to the Commanders, there are three other teams — the Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals and the Atlanta Falcons — in the conference only a game-and-a-half out of the seventh seed.
“The parity within this league is starting to show itself,” Rivera said.
There’s still a lot of football left to be played this season. But ahead of the Commanders’ matchup Sunday with the 1-7-1 Houston Texans, analytical models from FiveThirtyEight and Football Outsiders now give Washington a 36% and 31.8% chance at making the playoffs.
Here’s what has to happen for the Commanders to grab a spot.
San Francisco hits the skids: The 49ers are extremely talented on offense with left tackle Trent Williams, wide receiver Deebo Samuel, tight end George Kittle and running back Christian McCaffrey leading the way. Despite the supporting cast, San Francisco has been unable to sustain much consistency this season as the 5-4 49ers are the seventh seed in the NFC.
The 49ers will be seeking their third straight victory Monday in a prime-time contest against the Arizona Cardinals. But earlier this season, after beating the Rams and the Packers back to back, San Francisco went on to lose consecutive games to the Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs. The Commanders’ faithful should hope that win two, lose two trend continues.
Either way, the Commanders’ Christmas Eve showdown with the 49ers could go a long way in determining that final spot. One thing to keep in mind with the 49ers’ situation, however? San Francisco is still very much in the race for the NFC West as the Seahawks are only 6-4. Washington may need Seattle to start losing, too.
Take a couple, or at least one, from the Giants: Though the Commanders are chasing the seventh seed right now, the sixth and fifth seeds aren’t out of play. And in the fifth seed at the moment are the New York Giants. The Commanders still have to play the G-Men twice this season. Those meetings come Dec. 4 and Dec. 18, with the first matchup at MetLife Stadium. These aren’t the same oil’ Giants, either. First-year coach Brian Daboll has led New York to a surprising 7-2 start, designing an offense that has gotten new-found productivity out of quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley. The Giants have been particularly effective at winning close games as all seven of their wins have come by eight points or fewer.
Keep limiting explosions: One of the major reasons why the Commanders’ defense has significantly improved over the last month is that they’re finally limiting the number of explosive plays from the opposing offense. Through the first four games, according to Pro Football Reference, Washington’s defense gave up 21 plays of at least 20 yards — the third-most in the league. Over the next six weeks? That number has plummeted to 18, which is tied for the 10th-fewest. Part of the improvement can be traced to benching — and then trading — cornerback William Jackson III. Against the Eagles on Monday, the Commanders did allow a pass of 50 yards — but cornerback Benjamin St-Juste forced a fumble after the catch, leading to a Washington recovery. Besides that, the Eagles’ longest completion was a gain of 16.
Quarterback choice has to be correct: Whatever Rivera decides to do long term at quarterback — Taylor Heinicke got the nod Wednesday to start this weekend after Carson Wentz didn’t practice — the Commanders’ chances to make the playoffs will likely depend on whether Rivera makes the right pick for the rest of the season. Wentz (broken finger) wasn’t the only reason for Washington’s slow start, but his subpar play didn’t help. Heinicke hasn’t been a whole lot better, but he’s provided a spark that has helped Washington go 3-1.
“There’s a great saying that you treat everybody the same, you treat everybody fair, but you treat everybody according to the team,” Rivera said. “That’s what this is about so, (any) decision being made would be about the team first and foremost. Whoever the starter is, I’m gonna commit to ‘em fully because I don’t want them looking over the shoulder.”
• Matthew Paras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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