The identity is this: Daron Payne, with the clock ticking and a lead in jeopardy, reads Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota in second and the goal of the 4. Payne thought Mariota would run. Instead, Mariota put his feet on a quick pass. Payne was ready for that too.
“I just got my hands up,” he said.
One of those big mittens dropped the ball in the air. In the end zone, cornerback Kendall Fuller saw Mariota’s target, the dangerous Cordarrelle Patterson, tangle with Washington safety Darrick Forrest.
“I was just trying to disable the receiver,” Forrest said.
“I just hoped D-Fo didn’t hit me and knock the ball out,” said Fuller. “But I was just thinking [about] getting my hands under the ball, pulling my elbows tight and trying to play the ball.
Kendall Fuller’s interception allows Commanders to survive for a third win in a row
That’s a winning game by winning players from a team that has now won six out of seven. The latest was Sunday’s tenuous 19-13 victory over the Falcons, another last-second decision that required antacids. This is fun. It is also fragile.
“You can watch the last play of the game by the defense,” said offensive tackle Charles Leno Jr. “That ball, who knows what would have happened? Daron made sure that if it was a fast pass, he put his hands in the air. Once you get your hands up, anything can happen. Tipped ball, get an interception. We just have to find ways to win.”
That’s what the commanders do. Their margin of victory on this run that got them out of the misery of a 1-4 start: five, two, one, 11 (when they scored an accidental defensive touchdown on the final play of the game against the Eagles), 13 (to the simple Texans) and now six – when the opponent had the first and goal from inside the 5 with just over a minute left.
Fragile could describe the entire NFL. But with an attack confined to the sport’s premier position, the past six weeks have made it abundantly clear how this team needs to pull it off.
It should run the ball. It must play disruptive defense. And it needs to play a couple of times in the last minute to seal things up.
That may be a fragile formula. It’s real, and it works.
“We did some things to win,” said coach Ron Rivera. “But we also survived.”
That’s how this group has to play – like they have to claw to survive. That’s not even a reference to Rivera’s battle with cancer two seasons ago, though it came up among players in the wake of Rivera’s 100th coaching career win, including playoffs. It’s not a reference to rookie Brian Robinson Jr. ran back and overcame the gunshot wounds he sustained during an attempted preseason robbery to post the first 100-yard game of his career, requiring only 18 carries for 105 yards.
You can acknowledge the limitations of this group and at the same time acknowledge that there is a togetherness between these players and coaches. Consider Robinson’s increasing effectiveness and the running game, which went 176 yards off the ground on Sunday and has averaged 144 yards over the past seven weeks. That’s not just the rookie feeling more comfortable. It is also the line that gains confidence.
Once starved for turnover, the commanders’ defenses are now feasting
‘I’m doing my best to help [Robinson] succeed,” said Leno. “Obviously his job is based on my job, our job as the offensive line. We are trying to do the right thing.”
The same goes for the defense. Fuller’s game-winning interception doesn’t come without Payne tipping the pass. Payne’s tip does not win the game unless Fuller secures the ball. After emerging from the bottom of the pile – with FedEx Field really upside down – Fuller approached Payne.
“He said, ‘I eat, you eat,'” Fuller said. “It always goes hand in hand.”
So they eat together. Not in a five-star bistro with white tablecloth and candlelight. Their hands are greasy. The napkins are paper. That’s fine.
“Football is not a game of perfection,” said Fuller. “You’re going to give up plays. But you protect every garden.”
Protecting those last four yards on Sunday – and remember the Falcons had the first and goal of the 2 before Montez Sweat knocked down Mariota on Atlanta’s first try – handed them another win. And another win puts them in a rare position for this franchise, which consistently and consistently plays from behind.
These commanders are 7-5 as November comes to a close. Two of the three Washington teams in the past 15 years to enter December above .500 have played under Jay Gruden; there was a 6-4-1 start en route to an 8-7-1 finish in 2016 and a 6-5 start that ended 7-9 in 2018. The last Washington team to get seven wins before December: the roster of 2008, when Jim Zorn’s first team was 7-5. That group went down after a 6-2 start.
This one somehow goes the other way. This is increasingly because these commanders know who they are, what they can and cannot do.
“They got to where they are today … because they believe in what they can do,” Rivera said. “There’s a lot of negativity that we’ve been trying to get past and try to work past, and [we] just try to constantly tell these guys what they can do.
He added: “They found a common bond and common thread, and that is doing their job and being successful and winning. They understand: it feels good. They know they are more than capable.”
Are the commanders capable of more? Right now it’s all in front of them. Win next weekend at the New York Giants and they’ll be ahead of them in the NFC East. Say goodbye to regroup, then take on the Giants again.
Who knows? Don’t add up the wins just yet. That reduces the fun. For now, go with Fuller’s reminder Sunday afternoon, the whole “football isn’t a game of perfection.”
It’s not, so don’t look for it here. The commanders are far from a perfect bunch. But they know who they are, and right now that’s a team that has a chance to win every week.