The Washington Football Team has already clinched its fourth straight losing season entering "Sunday Night Football" against the Philadelphia Eagles. But that doesn't matter in the NFL's worst division, the NFC East, where a losing record is still plenty good enough to end the year on top.
That mediocrity puts this 6-9 Washington team in control of its own fate. A win and Washington takes the division in head coach Ron Rivera's first year, earn the franchise's first playoff berth since 2015, and hosts a playoff game next weekend. A loss? The division title goes to the winner of the Cowboys-Giants game held earlier that day.
A Washington victory would be a triumph for quarterback Alex Smith, who earned back his starting job after a gruesome ankle injury nearly led to a leg amputation. Sidelined for a season and a half, the almost-certain NFL Comeback Player of the Year salvaged the offense after poor play from 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins. Haskins, after a disastrous start last weekend against the Carolina Panthers, was released this week to end a rocky two-year tenure with the franchise.
Speaking of rocky, the Eagles are stumbling toward one of the worst seasons in franchise history just three years removed from winning a Super Bowl. The 4-10-1 record has come with a benching of former first-round pick Carson Wentz, whose future with the team is in question despite a recent four-year contract extension worth $128 million. A dysfunctional offense, one of the worst offensive lines in football, and inconsistent play on defense have put head coach Doug Pederson's job in jeopardy despite his recent success.
But the Eagles will be no pushover Sunday night. Second-round pick Jalen Hurts, making his fourth start at quarterback, has shown flashes of brilliance despite stumbling a bit last weekend against the Cowboys. Running back Miles Sanders can tear up a defense for an 80-yard run at any given moment. And Smith may be without some major offensive pieces at full strength, like running back Antonio Gibson and talented wideout Terry McLaurin.
Can Washington find a way to get it done, sweeping Philadelphia for the first time since 2016? Or will the Eagles pull the upset and send both teams home for the winter?
Washington at Philadelphia
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 3 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Washington -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Which Philadelphia offense will show up?
It feels like a lifetime ago that the Eagles started last week's game against the Cowboys up 14-3. The offense continued its upbeat rhythm put in place ever since Jalen Hurts took over.
So, what happened? The Eagles, after relying on the run early, abandoned it and promptly stalled out. Nine of their 29 rushing plays occurred in the first drive of the game. As the Cowboys stormed back, taking the lead, penalties also forced the Eagles into a bunch of second-and-long, then third-and-long situations. Hurts was under pressure, sacked three times, fumbled the ball, and threw the first two interceptions of his brief NFL career.
In the end, the Eagles got shut out in the second half and lost the game 37-17. Despite a season-high 342 passing yards, Hurts struggled in terms of offensive efficiency. The answer, it seems, is fairly simple looking at how Carson Wentz imploded in the second half against Washington way back in September. Get Miles Sanders involved, take deep chances in the passing game (see: 81-yard TD to DeSean Jackson vs. Dallas), and limit turnovers. The Eagles' 26 giveaways are the third-most in the NFL and contribute to an ugly minus-nine turnover margin (T-29th). And their 101 penalties, including 25 false starts, are second in the NFC only to the Arizona Cardinals.
Pederson indicated a minor injury may have affected Hurts' performance in the second half. It's something to watch for and capitalize on betting-wise if Washington's defense looks effective early on.
"The second half, it changed a little bit defensively on him," Pederson said of Hurts' Cowboys performance. "He was kind of battling through a little lower-body tightness as well as the game went on, and I do believe it affected him a little bit throwing the ball late in the game. But he's a battler, he's a warrior and he hung in there to the end."
2. Chase Young/Washington Defense vs. Eagles' offensive line
Young continues to terrorize opposing defenses on his way to NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. His 6.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, and nine quarterback hits are a recipe for trouble against a dysfunctional offensive line. Wentz and Hurts have been sacked an NFL-worst 62 times while the O-line has battled through injuries and ineffective performances.
Washington, meanwhile, has carried the team on defense, entering this game ranked fourth overall in the NFL and third against the pass. It's a good situation for Young to lead the way while the team seeks its first postseason bid in five years. There's a reason why Rivera anointed him the captaincy Dwayne Haskins left behind.
One important stat to watch: Washington is second in the NFL in limiting fourth-down conversions, holding teams to a 36 percent success rate. Eagles head coach Doug Pederson is known for his propensity to gamble and will likely stay aggressive with nothing but pride on the line. Hurts has shown an ability to be effective in those situations, going 6-for-10 in the last three games as the starter. Can Young buckle the Washington defense down and win those important battles in the trenches?
3. Can Rivera and Alex Smith get over the hump?
For me, this one is the biggest x-factor. Both Rivera and Smith are feel-good stories. One is overachieving in the midst of a cancer battle and his first season coaching the team. Smith was never supposed to get this far after the devastating ankle injury that should have ended his career.
The problem is, Cinderella masks the pumpkin both men still live in. Rivera inherited a team with young players and still developing their offensive talent. The defense is good enough, but only to a point; you still have to score to win games in the NFL. Smith, for all the experience he brings to the table, is little more than an effective game manager. His 79.0 QB rating ranks 16th in the NFC and is just 6.2 points higher than Wentz, who is benched and likely on his way out of Philadelphia.
In a game where the Eagles' offense is much improved, Smith is likely going to need to bring more to the table. He hasn't thrown for more than one touchdown pass in a game since returning as the starter. What if wide receiver Terry McLaurin (high ankle sprain) can't go on Sunday night? Or is severely limited? Smith has to find another weapon – or make that weapon himself. More than likely, 17 points and a turnover-free performance just aren't going to be enough to win here.
The chatter in Philadelphia is that Doug Pederson has spent the week advocating to keep his job as Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie ponders major changes. A loss would leave this team with just four victories, tied for the fewest by any Eagles team this century.
But since Hurts was inserted as the starter, the team's been competitive and shown some life against quality opponents. A win in the finale would bring his record to 2-2 and allow Pederson to make the case Carson Wentz's struggles at QB were the biggest problem, not the coaching and/or roster selection. There's plenty to play for.
While Alex Smith and Ron Rivera should get the storybook ending, Washington doesn't have all the pieces yet. Another poor offensive outing like the last two weeks, both losses, and Philadelphia has enough at home to get the job done.
Prediction: Eagles 28, Washington 24
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.