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The Washington Football Team dropped its former name, had a coach who faced cancer and benched its quarterback after four weeks this season. Washington wasn’t anyone’s pick to contend in the NFC East; it was more likely to compete for a top-five draft pick.
That’s why it’s surprising to see where the team is now: in control of the NFC East.
Washington (6-7) used defensive touchdowns to take over sole possession of the division with a 23-15 win over the San Francisco 49ers. The defense ended the 49ers’ last drive with a stop on fourth-and-12 just inside midfield. Washington needed to excel, as the offense struggled all game and lost quarterback Alex Smith for the second half because of a calf injury. There’s no word yet on his status for next week.
The game was played in Glendale, Arizona because of coronavirus restrictions in California. With three games remaining, Washington has a one-game lead over the New York Giants (5-8). It needs to finish ahead of the Giants because New York swept the season series.
Washington has won four consecutive games, and two of its three remaining opponents (Carolina and Philadelphia) have losing records. It’s now set up to do what few would have expected a few weeks ago: give the NFC East a division champion with a winning record.
Washington has reached this point despite its coach, Ron Rivera, needing to undergo seven weeks of cancer treatments. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins was benched after four games, and his replacement, Kyle Allen, suffered a season-ending ankle injury four games later. That left the team with Smith, who had not played since Nov. 18, 2018, because of his broken fibula and tibia that required 17 surgeries.
Despite it all, Washington remained strong thanks to a defense that on Sunday showed why it has a promising future. Its young ends, Montez Sweat and Chase Young, have played well all season.
But Young dominated Sunday. In the first half, he forced a fumble that led to a field goal and, on the ensuing possession, returned a fumble 47 yards for a touchdown. He deflected one pass and batted down a key third-down pass in the fourth quarter.
In fact, Washington did not score an offensive touchdown Sunday. Rookie safety Kamren Curl, a seventh-round pick, returned a third-quarter interception 47 yards for a touchdown.
Washington needed the defensive scores because its offense couldn’t generate much of an attack. It was missing running back Antonio Gibson, and then Smith played only in the first half because of a calf injury. Smith completed 8 of 19 passes for 57 yards.
Haskins replaced him and helped lead a field goal drive on his first possession, but that was all the offense could muster. Haskins nearly threw an interception late in the game, but the call was overturned on replay. Haskins completed 7 of 12 passes for 51 yards.
But this was a game about the defense. The front, with five first-round picks, pressured 49ers QB Nick Mullens most of the day. That group is the reason Washington was optimistic about its future — beyond 2020. But it’s also why Washington is in position to capture a division title one year after going 3-13.