The Washington Football Team won the NFC East on Sunday night in what was a fitting end for the worst division in NFL history. They won it because they had the best defense, the most competent quarterback and the most consistency over the course of a difficult year. This shouldn't be forgotten because of one ridiculous coaching move. Despite everything that went wrong Sunday night, we can't diminish all that went right for the Football Team this season.
The obvious problem with Washington's 20-14 win over Philadelphia is that this game will create a lot of discussion because of what didn't happen. The minute Eagles coach Doug Pederson inexplicably replaced starting quarterback Jalen Hurts with third-stringer Nate Sudfeld in the fourth quarter of a three-point contest, it screwed everything up. Sure, it meant Washington was going to coast to the division title. It also tainted what should've been a better moment for the Football Team.
As easy as it is to focus solely on the Sudfeld storyline, let's not forget everything that went into Washington earning a playoff berth. As head coach Ron Rivera said, "This one is special because of how hard it was. ... It just shows these guys that if they work hard, do things the right way, they give themselves a chance."
The really difficult aspect of how all this played out is that the Washington Football Team, which finished the regular season at 7-9, deserves some love. They kept fighting all season long and never lost faith in their opportunity to make something of themselves during a bizarre NFL campaign. Remember, this franchise has endured all sorts of self-inflicted controversy, including a sordid sexual harassment scandal and a public shaming that led to them dropping their controversial team nickname. Oh, yeah -- they also started last week by releasing quarterback Dwayne Haskins, the player they selected 15th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Washington overcame all of that because it has a tough-minded coach in Rivera, who fought cancer at the same time he was trying to mold a young team. It has a strong-willed quarterback in Alex Smith, as well, a player whose career seemed over after he sustained a gruesome broken leg two years ago and underwent countless procedures as a result. Throw in a young, talented defensive front led by DE Chase Young, the likely Defensive Rookie of the Year, and there was plenty for Washington to be proud of this season. This team legitimately made the most of everything it had.
This is why Washington deserved a better ending. The team deserved the best shot the Eagles could muster, not a game plan that felt like it was crafted for a third preseason game. The idea of playing Sudfeld would've made sense if the Eagles had no idea about what they were going to do at quarterback next season. It looks like complete lunacy when Hurts, a 2020 second-round pick who already had supplanted Carson Wentz as the starter, is completely healthy and still learning how to play at this level.
We'll never know if Hurts could've pulled off the victory. It certainly seemed like he'd have had his chances, especially because he had already misfired on a potential touchdown pass that would've given the Eagles the lead before he was pulled. (Pederson passed on a field-goal attempt on fourth-and-goal late in the third quarter that could've tied the game at 17.) Hurts could've set the stage for an exciting ending. All Sudfeld did was make the whole deal anticlimactic, as he threw an interception and lost a fumble in his short stint.
In Pederson's defense, Hurts wasn't killing it. The rookie quarterback completed only 7 of 20 passes for 72 yards with an interception before his night ended (though he did have two rushing scores). Pederson also pointed to the other Eagles starters who remained in the game as proof he was still trying to win.
"Yes, I was coaching to win," said Pederson, who admitted that he went into the contest looking to find playing time for Sudfeld. "Yes, that was my decision solely."
Added Hurts: "I knew that Doug wanted to get [Sudfeld] some playing time. He's been working hard. But as a competitor, you always want to play and win. ... Coach had a plan to go about it the way he did and he stuck to his plan."
This game could've been some sort of a reprieve for the NFC East. There wasn't going to be a team that won the division with a winning record, but at least Sunday started with a modicum of suspense. Aside from the Eagles, every other team in the division had an opportunity to claim the title. The worst possible outcome seemed to be that a 10-loss squad could've wound up in the postseason.
Then the games started. The New York Giants set themselves up for a shot at the division crown with a 23-19 win over Dallas. Keep in mind, the Giants won that game despite going 0 for 7 on third-down conversions, losing the turnover battle (two to one) and losing the time-of-possession battle by about 5 minutes. That's hard to do, even when the other team isn't playing its third quarterback.
All the Giants got out of that victory was the chance to watch Pederson practically give the title to Rivera. There was nothing exceptional about Washington's win, aside from Sudfeld's appearance. Smith delivered a serviceable performance (completing 22 of 32 passes for 162 yards with two touchdowns and two picks), but both teams struggled to move the football consistently. Both Washington and Philadelphia finished with 16 first downs. Neither team generated even 250 yards of offense.
What Washington did prove, once again, is that it knows how to grind, regardless of the circumstances.
"This speaks to the character of the team with everything stacked against us," Smith said. "For us to find a way to battle back says a lot about the character in the locker room."
It admittedly feels a bit strange spending this much time lamenting a move at the end of a game that resulted in the winner claiming a division crown. However, it's also the type of moment that typifies everything the NFC East gave us this year. We knew a long time ago that this was going to get uglier and uglier as the season went on. We just had no idea how brutal it would eventually become.
What's even harder to predict is where this once-proud division goes from here. The Cowboys should've been the best team, but they lost starting quarterback Dak Prescott to a broken leg in October and that will lead to plenty of uncertainty this coming offseason in Dallas. The Giants made strides, but their young quarterback, Daniel Jones, remains a work in progress. Of course, the Eagles also have to see if Hurts can build on some of the potential he flashed during his brief tenure as a starter.
The upside for the Washington Football Team is that its future doesn't involve those kinds of questions just yet. It gets to turn its attention to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who Washington will host in next weekend's Super Wild Card Round. Washington surely will be an underdog, as Tom Brady is coming to town with every intention of jump-starting a playoff run in his first season with that franchise. The odds of the Football Team being this elated at this time next week aren't promising.
So Washington should enjoy the final result of Sunday night's game. It came with a bit of controversy, but that really has nothing to do with them. The team showed up and played with the same grit and determination that has been its trademark all year. Once we stop talking about the Eagles' quarterback situation, that should be all that's remembered about the conclusion of this latest NFC East race.