Depleted Washington eliminated from NFL playoffs by latest tough loss but sees bright future

LANDOVER, Md. -- The Washington Football Team collapsed down the stretch, losing four straight entering the season finale this coming Sunday against the New York Giants. It also placed more than half its roster on the reserve/COVID-19 list during this period and lost other key players to injuries or personal situations.

As Washington (6-10) examines why it failed again to string together consecutive playoff seasons, it can look to the past four games and point to player absences. But it can just as rightly point to defeats earlier this season, when the team was healthy, that cost it a shot at the postseason. And it would be wrong to blame Sunday's 20-16 loss to Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) solely on who was missing.

"It's a little bit of both," Washington receiver Terry McLaurin said. "We have gone through some adversity with COVID-19 and personal tragedies and adversity we've had throughout the whole season."

But McLaurin said that is not an excuse.

"I don't think anyone would say that's why we didn't get it done. We just didn't get it done," he said. "Every team is dealing with something during this part of the season -- injuries, COVID -- so by no stretch of the imagination do I want that to be out there that it was an excuse or crutch."

Sunday proved to be another dismal playoff elimination for a franchise that hasn't made the postseason in consecutive years since 1991-92. It featured yet another home game in which the opposing fans outnumbered those for Washington.

A year ago Washington made the playoffs with a 7-9 record, winning five of its last seven regular-season games. It was supposed to be a springboard toward more success in 2021. But a 2-6 start, in which a defense that was supposed to be a team strength played poorly, left the team in a big hole. Two of those losses were especially frustrating: a 33-22 home loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 5 that included two coverage errors that led to Saints TDs, and a 17-10 road loss against the Denver Broncos in Week 8 when Washington had two field goal attempts blocked.

Washington appeared to be in good shape when it won four in a row to even its record at 6-6, but that is when more injuries and the pandemic struck. A team with little margin for error suddenly had none. In the past month, 36 players have been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, with almost all of them occurring after the four-game win streak. The team played Sunday minus 12 players who projected as starters this season, whether from injuries, COVID-19 or personal tragedies (defensive end Montez Sweat missed the game after his brother was shot and killed Tuesday).

"It's plain and simple," linebacker Cole Holcomb said. "Did we get the job done or not? It doesn't matter who's playing. If a guy had a job to do, did he get it done or not?"

Washington managed 231 yards in the first half against the Eagles, but it was two red zone failures resulting in field goals that made the difference. A 16-7 halftime lead could have been 24-7 with better execution. And the offense had the ball on the Eagles' 20 with 30 seconds remaining in the game when quarterback Taylor Heinicke was intercepted on a play on which coach Ron Rivera wanted pass interference called.

Still, Washington could have won. That's why, when asked afterward whether Sunday was a microcosm of their season, Rivera said, "Pretty much so."

After Washington evened its record, it felt good knowing what awaited: Five consecutive NFC East games to close the season. The team could make up ground. Instead, it lost twice to Dallas, the second time by 42 points, and twice to Philadelphia by a combined 14 points. In the first Philadelphia loss, Washington started quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who had arrived five days earlier.

"That could make or break your season, and it kind of broke ours," McLaurin said of those games.

Not that it has left Washington feeling it is far behind others in the division when looking toward the future.

"Obviously we got spanked by Dallas a couple times," Heinicke said. "But between the other two teams, I feel like we're just as good if not better. And I think all the guys in the locker room will tell you the same thing. So it's just unfortunate."

Washington, which travels to face the Giants on Sunday, needs better health in 2022, but every team suffers injuries, so it can't just rely on having everyone back.

It needs to find a consistent quarterback capable of stronger play. It needs to find a true middle linebacker on defense. It needs young defensive end Chase Young to play as he did in the second half of his rookie season (4 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries) and not the eight games he played this season before tearing his ACL (1.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles).

"The sky's the limit for this team," Holcomb said. "We gotta start faster in the beginning of the season and then get some pieces back."

And they need to play better when they do have all their players. With improved execution here and there, Washington would have gone into these past four games with more of a cushion.

"We have moments," Rivera said. "We still have a ways to go, though. We will continue to grow, but we showed what we are capable of. We showed some resilience at times, and then sometimes it was overwhelming. That's a good word for the last couple of weeks for these guys. ... I think this is something that we'll grow from, we'll learn from."