Commanders in the playoffs? How viable are their postseason hopes?

Yes, Jim Mora, we’re talking about the playoffs. Nobody is kidding about the Washington Commanders crashing the party.

Of course, postseason talk is premature, with seven weeks — six games for Washington — remaining in the regular season. The Commanders would not qualify for one of the NFC’s seven spots based on the current standings, but they’re tantalizingly close, with as much positive momentum as any team in the conference.

After they opened the season by losing four of five games, why not look ahead or at least explore the changing landscape?

The football man in charge can come up with reasons.

“You just think week-to-week,” Ron Rivera said following Sunday’s 23-10 win at Houston, Washington’s fifth in six games. “I know we have Atlanta coming up next. So you just focus on Atlanta, figuring out the things that you can do, the plays you can make to help you win on Sunday. That’s where my mindset is.”

That’s appropriate for the players and coaches. The rest of us can stop pondering 2023 draft options or whether significant changes will be required during the offseason, at least for now.

Ten teams have only one loss since Week 6. Of that group, only the Commanders played six contests, meaning their 5-1 record is the NFL’s best over that stretch. That includes a Monday night road win over the league’s last undefeated team and Sunday’s dominant showing against the dismal Houston Texans.

Washington enters Sunday’s return to FedExField a half-game behind the 6-4 Seahawks — who trail the 6-4 49ers in the NFC West only because of a head-to-head tiebreaker — for the third and final wild-card spot and trailing the Cowboys and Giants, both 7-3.


The Athletic’s Austin Mock’s model ranks the Commanders’ remaining schedule in the middle of the pack as the 17th-hardest. Football Outsiders ranks it the ninth-hardest. The slate includes four games against teams currently inside the NFC’s top seven. But before facing the Giants twice, the 49ers and the Cowboys (plus the Browns), Washington tangles with the team that’s on its heels in a borderline elimination game.

Atlanta (5-6) appeared poised for a rebuilding season after trading away longtime quarterback Matt Ryan and shedding salary elsewhere. Instead, the Falcons proved resilient and remained in the hunt for the NFC South title, where the Buccaneers (5-5) lead the way.

The defense is dismal — 29th most passing yards allowed (266.3) per game — but the offense under coach Arthur Smith ranks 12th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Overall, Atlanta is 17th in DVOA, one spot ahead of Washington.

With a loss on Sunday, Washington would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker to the team with an easier schedule (19th by Mock’s model, 21st by Football Outsiders). With a win — the Falcons have lost four of five on the road — the Commanders would move two games ahead in the loss column with the head-to-head tiebreaker in their pocket.

Then come back-to-back games against the Giants. Props to first-year head coach Brian Daboll for maximizing quarterback Daniel Jones’ strengths. Even so, this is the most questionable team among the current top-seven seeds.

Beyond the smoke-and-mirror questions — the Giants rank 21st in DVOA — New York has the third-most difficult remaining schedule, per Mock’s model. Should New York lose at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day and Washington beats Atlanta, the Commanders would be able to move ahead of their NFC East rival at MetLife Stadium on Dec. 4. The teams meet again in D.C. on Dec. 18, after Washington’s bye.

Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Dallas and Minnesota have among the 11 remaining easiest schedules. The Seahawks’ slate is slightly harder than average (T-12th), and the 49ers’ is in the middle at 16th. The 49ers host the Commanders on Christmas Eve.



Updated NFL playoff picture: Big battles looming in the AFC East and NFC East


Mock’s model gives the Commanders a 40.7 percent chance of qualifying for the playoffs. Football Outsiders has Washington at 42.6 percent, with an essentially equal shot at the sixth (19.2 percent) and seventh seed (19.7). That’s the lowest among NFC East teams in both models. Dallas and Philadelphia are considered locks. Coming off a dismal home loss to Detroit, New York remains in positive territory at 59.9 percent in Mock’s model (51.9 percent in Football Outsiders’).

Adding a third wild-card team means an entire division could make the postseason. With the two NFC West teams positioned for spots, Football Outsiders gives the NFC East an 8.7 percent chance at sweeping the three wild-cards slots.

The New York Times’ projection model raises Washington’s chances to 49 percent, but that’s well behind Seattle (62 percent) and New York (69).

Defense wins

The offense isn’t likely to lead a playoff push. Good news: Washington’s defense is progressing into a unit that might have the goods.

“Turnovers come in bunches” is something defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and various players said numerous times this season when opponents refused to give away the ball. Well, times have changed.

The young members of the secondary, namely cornerback Benjamin St-Juste and safety Darrick Forrest, have provided needed playmaking. Paired with the impressive run defense and pass rush, bunches of fumbles and interceptions have arrived.

During the past six games, the Commanders forced 12 turnovers. With the offense committing only five, Washington leads the league in turnover margin (plus-7) in that stretch.

“Turnover ratio has been a continued emphasis by our defensive staff, and they work on it and talk about it every day,” Rivera said.

Logically, if turnovers come in bunches, they can also disappear overnight. Washington’s defense had a league-worst one takeaway through Week 5. The good news is the stout defensive line offers a strong baseline, and the secondary benefits accordingly. Even if defensive end Chase Young plays a limited role whenever he’s available for game day, that’s another edge rusher.



Commanders activate DE Chase Young to the 53-man roster

The NFL’s modern era slants heavily toward the offense, and teams with star quarterbacks can make effective defenses appear limited. This might not apply this year in the NFC.

Other than Tom Brady, instead of perennial headliners like Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson, this year’s crop may include Geno Smith and Daniel Jones. Few fear Jimmy Garoppolo. Kirk Cousins’ big-game struggles are well-known, and let’s see what Jalen Hurts can do in that spotlight before assuming anything. Dallas is 1-3 in playoff games with Dak Prescott.

Washington’s defense isn’t a shutdown unit, at least not until it raises its consistency over four quarters. Minnesota scored 13 points in the fourth quarter to overcome a 10-point deficit for a Week 9 win. The Commanders, during the past five games, are also:

  • Third in rush defense DVOA
  • Ninth in defensive DVOA during Heinicke’s five starts, behind the Cowboys, Seahawks and Eagles in the NFC
  • Third in percentage of explosive plays allowed (8.2) — rushes of 12-plus yards and receptions of 16 or more yards

This unit should keep Washington in games. If the growth goes next level, and the opposing quarterbacks aren’t scary, hmm.

Analytics cannot define heart and courage, but we’ve seen Heinicke stare down scary foes and big stages. There’s also no debating Heinicke’s grasp of offensive coordinator Scott Turner’s playbook.

He recognizes that putting the ball in the hands of Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and others is how this passing attack works best, rather than trying to make hero plays. Washington is 14th in yards after the catch (1,178), and the receivers haven’t dropped a single Heinicke pass this season, per TruMedia.

Having a viable ground game and an improved (though still dicey) offensive line helps. Four of Washington’s final six games are against teams in the bottom six of defensive DVOA. These are reasons why the current version of Heinicke gives the Commanders a shot regardless of the foe. However, regression is conceivable.

Per PFF, Heinickie’s turnover-worth-plays (11) nearly quadruple his big-time-throws (3). What happens in games when the run game doesn’t work? Washington’s run-first approach keeps the pressure off Heinicke, literally and figuratively. If the tables turn and he must carry the offense, that’s when concerns mount.

(Photo of Kamren Curl and Darrick Forrest: Troy Taormina / USA Today)


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