ASHBURN — Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera has said his team has worked to become relevant, and that hard work is finally starting to pay off. This weekend’s showdown with the New York Giants was not only moved to NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” to be played in prime time, but the matchup will feature meaningful December football against an NFC East rival — with real stakes involved.
After all, the 7-5-1 Commanders — 6-1-1 in their last eight games — enter the game with a considerable amount of buzz, which has rarely been the case over the past several years. The last time the Commanders made the playoffs to cap the 2020 season, they did so in the thick of a pandemic — with near-empty, juiceless stadiums — and with a mediocre 7-9 record that took advantage of a historically bad division.
But now there’s such a sense of anticipation that the Commanders even took the rare step of paying to keep Metro trains running for an extra hour after the game, until 12:30 a.m. Monday.
A win Sunday would significantly boost Washington’s postseason odds, while a loss against the Giants — who have an identical 7-5-1 record — likely would put the team on the outside looking in with three games left.
“When you know the type of team you’re playing against, and everything’s on the line, I don’t know how much more you can want out of that,” Commanders star receiver Terry McLaurin said. “If you can’t get up for that, then I don’t know what else is going to help you.”
The Commanders are in such an unusual position — well, unusual to anyone not used to winning Super Bowls under Joe Gibbs — that they have a legitimate claim as being the best sports team in the Washington area.
The team’s winning percentage of .577 is better than that of the Washington Wizards (.379) and the Washington Capitals (.483). That hasn’t happened in December since 2012 or 2007 — depending on how you view it. The 2012 Redskins were better than that year’s Wizards, but the NHL was in a lockout so the Capitals weren’t playing. The 2007 Redskins, on the other hand, had a better record than both the Wizards and the Capitals.
Either way, it has been a while.
“We’ve worked to try and get [the fans’] attention and their focus back on us and to have the fans’ support out there, that would be awesome,” Rivera said. “It really would. And again, that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to show them and earn their respect back. We are doing everything we can to get going in the direction we want to be, and we want to play the type of football that will get them to come out and cheer for us.”
After tying the Giants two weeks ago, defensive tackle Jonathan Allen implored Commanders fans to pack FedEx Field for the rematch. Washington’s attendance is up nearly 10% this season, but the Commanders — who are paying $100,000 to keep the Metro open, the first time they’ve done so since 2015, according to a team spokesperson — still rank last in the NFL. And when the stadium has had a big crowd, it usually has been because of the opposing fanbase who traveled to be there.
Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke said he remembered how during last season’s “Thursday Night Football” matchup with the Giants, New York’s fans seemed to account for half of the stadium. “Hopefully our guys come out Sunday night and make some noise,” the signal-caller said.
But the Commanders are in playoff contention in large part because of their recent surge. They’ve been able to win even amid numerous scandals involving owner Dan Snyder, who is exploring a sale of the team.
Washington started just 1-4, but the team’s switch to Heinicke in place of an injured Carson Wentz at quarterback in October helped overcome the team’s poor start. Improvements by the defense and a commitment to the run have proven to be just as much of a factor as the quarterback swap, if not more so.
The Commanders have allowed the fourth fewest amount of yards and the 10th-fewest points per game this season. Washington’s running back duo of Brian Robinson Jr. and Antonio Gibson has helped the team maintain time of possession and establish a distinct identity on offense.
The Commanders’ new-found success resulted in television executives clamoring for Washington in prime time — a rarity in the Rivera era. But under Rivera, Washington has done surprisingly well in big moments. Most recently in prime time, the Commanders ruined the Philadelphia Eagles’ undefeated season on “Monday Night Football” with a 32-21 upset win. Washington is 5-2 in games starting after 7:30 p.m. since 2020.
To promote Sunday’s game, NBC used a graphic of Heinicke and Giants star running back Saquon Barkley last weekend. As it turned out, Heinicke was watching as he was home in Georgia visiting his sister during the Commanders’ bye week. When the teaser popped up, the quarterback’s family shouted he was on television.
“It’s always kind of weird seeing yourself or hearing your name on TV,” Heinicke said. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.”
But Heinicke and the Commanders will be on TV with much of the country watching Sunday night.
According to Football Outsiders, the Commanders’ odds of making the postseason would be 86% with a win and just 28% with a loss. The Giants would have a 90% shot with a win over the Commanders and 31% with a loss.
“It’s an exciting time for Washington Commanders fans,” McLaurin said. “It’s been a while where there’s really some optimism about what this team is capable of and what we can do. But I think it’s a matter of doing it. … Until we do it, that is still going to be something that always is going to be a question mark.
“But I’m confident in the group that we have in here can take the next step.”