PHILADELPHIA, Pa. - There was promise the Ron Rivera era would be different. Few thought those drastic changes would come in year one of Ron Rivera's tenure as head coach of the Washington Football Team.
However, after just 16 games as bench boss, the Washington Football Team is back in the NFL postseason for the first time in five years. Washington advanced to the postseason by virtue of a 20-14 victory in Sunday's season finale at Philadelphia. The win gives Washington the NFC East division title - its first since the 2015 season.
Alex Smith threw two touchdown passes in the victory.
“This one’s special just because of how hard it was,” said Washington coach Ron Rivera, who overcame a form of skin cancer during the season. “How tough everything was, how it’s been on the guys, the organization. There’s a great group of young men in there and we’re trying to do things the right way. It’s really a cool thing to come out and get the division.”
The Washington franchise, which changed its nickname in July after years of protests about it, became the first team in the Super Bowl era to reach the playoffs following a 2-7 start. A loss would’ve given the New York Giants (6-10) the division title. As division champs, the Burgundy and Gold (7-and-9) will host Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Saturday January 9th at 8:15 p.m. in an NFC Wild Card Playoff.
It didn’t hurt the visitors that Eagles coach Doug Pederson switched to third-string quarterback Nate Sudfeld early in the fourth quarter, which didn’t go over well with Giants players posting their reaction on Twitter. Sudfeld hadn’t thrown a pass since 2018 and was picked on his second attempt. He also lost a fumble.
Hurts’ passer rating of 25.4 was the lowest by an Eagles starting quarterback since Nick Foles posted a 9.3 rating in the final regular-season game in 2017. Foles ended that season as the Super Bowl MVP.
“Yes, I was coaching to win,” Pederson said. “Yes, that was my decision solely. Nate has been here four years and I felt he deserved an opportunity to get some snaps.”
Led by Smith and Rivera, Washington (7-9) is the third team to win a division title with a losing record during a full 16-game season. Seattle (2010) and Carolina (2014) previously did it and each won a playoff game.
The 36-year-old Smith began the season as the No. 3 quarterback, a remarkable comeback following 17 surgeries on his leg and a life-threatening infection put his career in jeopardy. He led Washington’s turnaround, going 4-1 before missing the previous two games with a calf strain.
“A lot to be grateful for, starting with the guys in the locker room,” Smith said. “Excited for them. We had some bumps early, kept fighting and here we are.”
Smith tossed a 5-yard pass to Terry McLaurin to give Washington a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. After Kamren Curl intercepted Hurts’ pass, Dustin Hopkins kicked a 42-yard field goal to make it 10-0.
Smith finished 22 of 32 for 162 yards and two picks with the two TDs.
“We feed off their energy,” Smith said about a ferocious defense led by rookie Chase Young.
Rivera wore a division champions T-shirt during his post-game news conference while players were hooting and hollering and celebrating in the background.
“It goes back to the hard work,” Rivera said. “I praise the players, I praise the coaches, I praise the support staff. I want to give a big shoutout to our coaches. They picked up a lot of slack for me. Just having to fight through what I did, they were there. They did a tremendous job.”
Down 17-14, the Eagles had an excellent opportunity at Washington’s 15 after Marcus Epps picked Smith’s pass that bounced out of J.D. McKissic’s hands. The Eagles had a first down from the 5 but gained only 1 yard. Pederson passed up a short field goal and starter Jalen Hurts threw incomplete on fourth down from the 4.
Hurts finished 7 of 20 for 72 yards, one interception, 34 yards rushing and two scores on the ground.
Sudfeld, who was inactive for the previous 14 games, saw his first action this season. After T.J. Edwards intercepted Smith, Sudfeld gave it back with a fumble recovered by Young. That led to Hopkins’ 42-yarder and a 20-14 lead for Washington.
Washington opened the season with a 27-17 victory over the Eagles. Dwayne Haskins started that game for Washington and Carson Wentz for Philadelphia. Haskins was released last week. Wentz was benched last month and was inactive for this one.
Rivera helped change the losing culture in Washington after nine seasons as Carolina’s coach. He did it while battling squamous cell carcinoma. Rivera missed some practice time but no games and completed his treatment in October.