ASHBURN, Va. — Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera likes having his team back on a national stage. The past two times worked out rather well — at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day and one game later at Pittsburgh in a rescheduled Monday night game. A third positive outcome will result in an NFC East title.
“We’ve got to get back to having a little fun,” Rivera said.
Washington (6-9), loser of two in a row, can win the NFC East if it beats the Philadelphia Eagles (4-10-1) Sunday (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). It’s not an unusual spot for Washington. In the past 15 years, the franchise has made the playoffs four times, and three required the team to win the season finale. A fourth trip was ruined because it lost the finale.
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“The truth of the matter is we’re playing with house money,” Rivera said. “That’s the best part about it. Nobody expected us to be here. I just feel that it’s great. These guys deserve it after the year we’ve been through, the last few years. I think our guys appreciate that.”
He’s right; nobody expected Washington to be in this spot because nobody predicted how bad the NFC East would be this season. Washington has capitalized on this opportunity, but can the team finish?
The most recent time Washington played at Philadelphia with a chance to win the division, it worked out well. It clinched the division with a Week 16 win against the Eagles in 2015. That’s also the most recent time Washington made the postseason.
Here are the four win-or-go-home Week 17 games in the past 15 years for Washington, starting with the most recent:
2016 — New York Giants 19, Washington 10: The Giants had already clinched the NFC East, so all Washington needed to do was beat a team with nothing to play for, albeit one that entered at 10-5. New York did not rest a lot of its starters — Eli Manning attempted every pass — but it did use a conservative game plan in the second half. Washington’s offense struggled all game as quarterback Kirk Cousins played poorly and threw two interceptions. Washington lost four of its last six games to finish 8-7-1.
2012 — Washington 28, Dallas Cowboys 18: At 3-6 and in the bye week, Washington was not in position to think playoffs. But it had a rookie quarterback making plays (Robert Griffin III) and it had three consecutive division games upcoming. Win those games and then the playoffs become a possibility. Washington won those, then kept winning. In the finale, Griffin was still affected by a sprained knee suffered three weeks earlier. His numbers weren’t great: He threw for 100 yards, rushed for 63 and scored a touchdown. But a fellow rookie, running back Alfred Morris, dominated as Washington won its seventh game in a row. He rushed for 200 yards and three touchdowns in a game that provided the most electric atmosphere Washington has seen in some time. But a week later Griffin tore his ACL in a 24-14 playoff loss to Seattle.
2007 — Washington 27, Dallas Cowboys 6: The margin of victory stood out to every person in the organization. A month earlier, Washington safety Sean Taylor was murdered; the team then clinched a playoff spot with a margin of victory that matched Taylor’s last jersey number (21). The win capped an emotional month. Washington closed the regular season with four consecutive wins, led by backup quarterback Todd Collins. The team won three of those games by double digits and entered the playoffs believing it could make a run in the postseason, but Seattle squashed those hopes with a 35-14 first-round win. Three days later, Washington coach Joe Gibbs retired.
2005 — Washington 31, Philadelphia Eagles 20: New York clinched the NFC East with a victory the previous night, but Washington could still earn a spot with a win. Washington entered the game with four wins in a row, including double-digit victories against Dallas and the Giants. The Eagles, playing without quarterback Donovan McNabb, led 20-17 entering the fourth quarter. In the final 15 minutes, Washington running back Clinton Portis scored on a 22-yard run and Taylor scooped and scored on a fumble. In the playoffs, Washington beat Tampa Bay — the franchise’s most recent postseason victory — before losing to Seattle in the second round.