Taylor Heinicke, Commanders shocks undefeated Eagles

Taylor Heinicke, Commanders shocks undefeated Eagles

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PHILADELPHIA — Taylor Heinicke said he wasn’t paying attention. He said he hadn’t given much thought to the fact that Monday night could potentially be his last start should Carson Wentz return to the active squad from his broken finger and be ready to go.

His concern, he said last week, is winning. And to win a game against the NFL’s last undefeated team, he had to help his commanders convert in third place, maintain drives and stay consistent — all things Washington didn’t typically achieve.

At the time his comments perhaps felt like standard football lingo – say the right thing, no matter how obvious, and hope and pray the result comes somewhere close. In hindsight, the quarterback’s hopes — and his game — were wise, and Monday’s game may have almost guaranteed him a chance to remain Washington’s starter, regardless of Wentz’s health.

With a strong confidence in the running game and an efficient game in third, Heinicke’s Commanders did what no other team has done this season: They upset the Philadelphia Eagles 32-21 – no less on their home turf.

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Calling it “probably the biggest win of my career,” Heinicke finished 17 for 29 for 211 yards, no touchdowns and one interception for a 66.9 passer rating. Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts went 17-26 for 175 yards, two touchdowns and an interception for a 94.2 rating.

For the first time this season, the Commanders’ offense looked consistent and methodical, as they scored four goals in the first half, three of which spanned 13, 12 and 16 games. Washington (5-5) scored 13 points in the second quarter while keeping the Eagles scoreless, a feat in its own right; Philadelphia (8-1) came into play after scoring nearly 60 percent of their points in the second quarter and was yet to be ruled out.

“We’ve found that one of the best ways to slow Jalen Hurts is to keep him off the field,” said Commanders Coach Ron Rivera.

But his dominance in the first half didn’t stop there. Washington passed Philadelphia by 235 yards for 101, converted 75 percent of his third downs (9 of 12) and ran 51 plays to the Eagles’ 19. Washington’s 17 minutes and 38 seconds of possession in the first half was the greatest in franchise history, and it was capped by a 58-yard field goal (the longest of Joey Slye’s career) that gave a 20-14 lead built up and prompted a round of boos from Eagles fans.

For the game, Washington rushed 81 plays for 330 yards, including 152 on the ground, and converted 57 percent of his third downs (12 for 21). It was everything nobody expected and more.

“In a situation like this, I’ve always thought that we have the kind of guys in this dressing room that can do things and we’re starting to see it come together,” said Rivera, who was choked up in the dressing room afterwards.

Two weeks earlier, his mother Delores died after a battle with lung cancer. Amid all the organizing drama off the field, Rivera stressed to his team the importance of staying focused.

During the week he told his players to let him do the unimportant things. Fighting back tears after the game, he told his players his mother “would have been proud”.

“It means a lot because the guys were able to focus on what really matters,” he said. “… The hard work is beginning to pay off.”

After their crucial first half, the Commanders opened the second by forcing a three-and-out and then embarking on another long drive that spanned 14 games and more than eight minutes before Slye hit a 32-yard field -Goal smashed to extend Washington’s lead to 23-14.

The Commanders not only defied their own game over the past two-plus seasons under Rivera — they displayed control and attention to detail that had eluded them in the most critical situations. With Heinicke at the helm, Washington plays on the sidelines, usually one pitch away from disaster or glory.

Last week against Minnesota, his deep pass was intercepted down the middle, costing the Commanders dearly as their three-game winning streak ended. This week his exhilarating games made all the difference.

In the second quarter, center Tyler Larsen sent a snap over Heinicke’s head, but the quarterback pulled back, recovered, and knocked him out of the game — past the line of scrimmage — only to give Washington a down instead of a significant piece of yardage or worse costs.

Then in the fourth, during Washington’s final drive, Heinicke scrambled to his feet from the pressure and knelt in third place, giving the Eagles’ Brandon Graham an unnecessary penalty when Graham ran into him.

“In that last game we called a slant for Terry [McLaurin], and it was one of those things where if he’s open, give it to him, and if not, take a sack,” Heinicke said. “I didn’t want to throw it unless he was wide open. When I took that knee and saw them coming towards me, I hoped that they would come towards me and in fact they did. It was a mistake on their part, but hey, we’ll live with it.”

The Eagles’ mistake also revealed Heinicke’s growth.

“Very much so,” Rivera said. “It’s one of the things he learns to take what’s given to him.”

Throughout Monday’s game, the Commanders were mostly solid and when they made a mistake, they fought back to make it up to them. They committed to the run early and stayed with it (Brian Robinson Jr. finished the game with 86 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries) and opened chunk plays in the passing game. They moved the ball and ate the clock, converting critical third downs and mostly staying out of the way.

But the first two minutes of the game indicated the beginning of another first-half disaster. Armani Rogers was tagged for holding the opening kickoff, resulting in a 33-yard loss on a long return from Antonio Gibson. Washington then went three-and-out; After Washington regained the ball through a roughing-the-punter penalty, Heinicke was exposed. Philadelphia regained the ball and only needed three games to find the end zone on Hurts’ one-yard run.

The commanders responded with their first long drive with 10 run plays centered around two big passes — a 26-yard reception from McLaurin on the third and second and a 14-yard catch from Jahan Dotson on the second and eleventh . Gibson capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown run.

This offense was completely different from what Washington had shown in the weeks before.

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A few mistakes would follow. Cornerback Benjamin St-Juste was called out for pass interference on a Hurts deep pass, and while the decision seemed questionable, it nonetheless led to another Eagles result, this time a six-yard pass to tight end Dallas Goedert to put Philadelphia in 14th place bring to. 7.

Washington was then marked fourth and one for delaying the game, prompting offensive coordinator Scott Turner to throw his hands in the dressing room and the offense to settle for a 44-yard slye field goal.

But after an interception by safety Darrick Forrest and two more Washington goals before the end of the half — a one-yard touchdown run from Robinson and that 58-yard field goal from Slye — the Commanders had a 20-14- halftime lead. It was the first time Washington had scored at least 20 points in the first half in more than two years.

The Eagles appeared to bounce back at the Philadelphia 14-yard line after Javon Hargrave’s sack from Heinicke in the third quarter. The takedown forced Washington to settle for a 32-yard field goal that extended his lead to nine. Philadelphia responded with a long drive, going 11 plays, when Hurts threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith to make it 23-21.

A move wasn’t in Washington’s plans, but given the circumstances, it wasn’t a egregious mistake. It was third and three-pointers at Philadelphia’s 43 when Heinicke fired a rocket over the left touchline toward McLaurin, who hung in the air just long enough for safety CJ Gardner-Johnson to step up and grab her.

Heinicke had said in the past that he plans to give the star receiver that chance if he has a 50-50 chance with McLaurin, and his decision to do so here seemed wise, even if the result was poor. Had the throw sailed a little further, the commanders would have been just a few paces from the goal line. Instead, it was picked up, a turnover that ultimately had little consequence.

“He’s been great since he’s been here — honestly,” McLaurin said. “… He really plays like every game is his last. He plays without fear, man.”

On subsequent possession, defensive tackle John Ridgeway forced a fumble on a short pass to Goedert, which linebacker Jamin Davis recovered and returned for a touchdown. The result was overturned on review – but the turnover stood, giving Washington another chance to extend its lead. Slye, who was having the game of his life, threw a 55-yard field goal with 7:33 left to give Washington a 26-21 advantage.

But no Commanders game, especially with Heinicke as quarterback, can end without late-game theatrics. This time it came courtesy of the defense.

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Hurts launched a 50-yard pass to Quez Watkins, who stumbled onto the turf, got back up, and then lost control of the ball as St-Juste punched him. Forrest recovered from the fumble to finish what could have been a game-winning drive.

“We definitely got into this game because we knew nobody believed in us,” Forrest said. “…We came in ready to fight.”

With his team in position to seal the win in the final minutes, Dotson was flagged for offensive pass interference, negating a 21-yard catch by Curtis Samuel in third. But after the punt, defensive end Montez Sweat thwarted another Philadelphia drive with a sack in third.

Heinicke then stuck to the plan: convert third down, keep the drive going.

In third and seventh, with McLaurin firmly in control, Heinicke scrambled to his feet before taking a knee and taking the penalty from Graham, which gave the commanders a fresh set of downs and a chance to bleed the clock.

When Philadelphia finally got the ball back, Casey Toohill recovered from a mistaken desperation to the side for a touchdown on the last play of the game, allowing Washington to secure the win and Heinicke waltz to the tunnel in celebration.

“We felt like if we could control the line of scrimmage and let the ball run, we could slow things down and we could do that,” Rivera said before leaning in. “I mean, the guy’s a dynamic quarterback and he did a hell of a job — and Jalen’s not a bad guy either.”

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