LANDOVER — Ron Rivera said earlier in the week that he was “giddy” the Commanders were playing meaningful football this late into the season.
He might not be as elated after Sunday’s 19-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons. But he’ll take it nonetheless.
Cornerback Kendall Fuller reeled in an end zone interception with less than a minute left to kill an Atlanta drive and preserve a win that lifts Washington to 7-5. Defensive tackle Daron Payne helped create the crucial turnover, tipping Atlanta quarterback Marcus Mariota’s pass at the line of scrimmage. The throw landed in the arms of Fuller.
The stop helped the Commanders knock off an NFC team that was right behind them in the standings. Both teams are fighting to earn a wild card spot in the conference and the victory could be vital down the stretch if tiebreakers come into play.
Until the turnover, the Falcons seemed poised to take the lead as Mariota led Atlanta on a 10-play, 80-yard drive that got to the Commanders’ 4-yard line. The Falcons, too, had burned slightly more than four minutes off the clock, so Washington absolutely needed a stop.
They got one thanks to Fuller and Payne — the latter of whom is set to be a free agent at the end of the year.
Before the swing, the Commanders relied on a familiar formula to put themselves into position to steal a win. Washington again dominated on the ground with 176 rushing yards on 37 carries, while the team’s defense kept Atlanta mostly in check.
The win featured the emergence of rookie Brian Robinson Jr., who noticed his first 100-yard game as he finished with 105 rushing yards on 18 carries and a receiving touchdown.
Quarterback Taylor Heinicke again mostly managed the game as he threw for 138 yards on 14 of 23 passing with an interception.
The Commanders came into Sunday’s matchup riding the highs of a recent surge that saw Washington win five of its last six. The vibes were so strong around the team’s facility that Rivera opted to give players and coaches Thanksgiving off as a reward.
Rivera, though, maintained that the Commanders weren’t taking the Falcons lightly. The team’s schedule was adjusted so that Washington did additional work on Tuesday to make up for Thursday’s off day.
The key to beating the Falcons this season has been shutting down a potent rushing attack. But early on, Atlanta found success on the ground — particularly when Mariota held onto the ball on zone reads and designed runs.
The threat of Atlanta’s run game opened up the passing attack, as Mariota found tight end MyCole Pruitt off a play fake wide-open in the end zone for a 10-7 lead in the second quarter.
The Commanders answered with Robinson and backfield mate Antonio Gibson fueling a 14-play, 59-yard drive that resulted in a 30-yard field goal to tie the score from Joey Slye.
Both teams had opportunities to go ahead before halftime. The Commanders took over with 24 seconds left after stopping Atlanta on fourth-and-1, but Heinicke immediately proceeded to throw an ugly interception.
Two plays later, Mariota hit tight end Anthony Firsker for a 16-yard gain to put Atlanta back in field goal range. But Koo missed a 58-yarder as time expired, leaving the teams tied at halftime.
In the second half, the Commanders’ commitment to the ground game helped them take control. Robinson routinely ripped off carries of more than five yards, bulldozing his way down the field. With the Falcons’ linebackers biting on the run, Heinicke found tight end John Bates for a 16-yard touchdown to give the Commanders a 16–10 lead.
Washington missed an opportunity to take a full touchdown lead as Slye missed the extra point after Bates’ score. But the error did not come back to bite the Commanders — just barely. The Commanders gave themselves additional breathing room with a 45-yard field goal in the fourth, though Atlanta still could have taken the lead late thanks to another field goal that made it a six-point game.
• Matthew Paras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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