Washington's playoff fate to be determined by NFC East rivalry games

ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Football Team pointed to this stretch as soon as the schedule was announced, knowing -- hoping -- it would be the difference in their season. And it will. Washington has sprinted back into the playoff race with a four-game winning streak. Now it can finish off its playoff quest against the teams it knows best.

Its final five games are against NFC East teams, starting with a home game Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox) against the first-place Dallas Cowboys (8-4). If Washington (6-6) beats the Cowboys, it would be one game back -- and facing them again in two weeks. Washington also has two games against the Philadelphia Eagles (6-7) and one more against the New York Giants (4-8).

"We're in a round-robin," Washington coach Ron Rivera said. "You have that opportunity, you control it."

Washington hasn't won five straight games since it won the final seven regular-season contests in 2012. Before then, it was 2005. Every game, of course, matters in the NFL, but thanks to playoff tiebreakers the divisional opponents carry more weight. And the familiarity between the teams makes it more difficult for both sides.

"These division games are almost like the rivalry games where you have an Auburn-Alabama where on paper, Alabama should beat them by 20, 30 points," quarterback Taylor Heinicke said. "But you just know with these, division/rivalry games that anything can happen. And we got that five weeks in a row. So the guys are ready for it. They're locked in and we're excited for it."

Washington currently holds the NFC's sixth playoff spot; San Francisco, also 6-6, is seventh. Philadelphia and Minnesota (6-7) are a half-game back and Carolina, New Orleans and Atlanta all are 5-7. Washington beat the Panthers and Falcons but lost to the Saints. However the Saints have lost five consecutive games.

If Washington finishes 3-2 it would be in great shape to make the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 1991-92. A 2-3 mark would leave it needing a lot of help.

Washington scrapped its way to a division title in 2020, rallying from a 2-7 start to finish 7-9. That experience can help now.

"We dug ourselves out before, we have faith we can do it again," said defensive end James Smith-Williams.

Also, Heinicke said Rivera's steadiness -- the coach doesn't change his demeanor regardless of the situation -- helps. That likely stems from his coaching history -- he entered this season with a 42-30 record in the second half of his nine full seasons. Washington is 4-0 this year.

"Most of the guys that are playing, they know what it feels like," Rivera said. "So this is nothing new that they don't know how to handle themselves. And hopefully the guys that are new to this, they can explain to 'em 'Hey guys, this is exactly what we've done. This is what we've been through. This is how we can handle it.'"

Washington turned its season around despite numerous injuries because it has found the right formula for success: a strong running game plus stout defense. During this period, Washington leads the NFL in time of possession at 37 minutes, 36 seconds. Running back Antonio Gibson, the NFC's leading rusher with 800 yards, has nearly half of his yards this season -- 358 -- durg the win streak.

Thanks to the run game, Washington has had more favorable third-down situations. It has been in third-and-4 or shorter on 27 of its 58 third downs and has converted an NFL-best 50 percenint of its third downs overall. In the first eight games, Washington faced a similar down-and-distance 39 of 98 times and ranked 27th overall at 34.7 percent.

Defensively, Washington has increased its aggressiveness, especially on third down. Without ends Chase Young and Montez Sweat, it has resorted to creating more pressure and not relying on a four-man rush.

It has sent an extra rusher on 48.5 percent of its third downs during the streak compared to 29.9 percent when both Young and Sweat were playing together in the first eight games. Washington is playing almost twice as much zone compared to early in the season and disguising coverages far more effectively. Thanks to the time of possession, the defense is also more fresh.

It adds up to this: During the streak Washington's defense is sixth in the NFL on third downs at 30.8 percent. In the first eight weeks it was last at 50 percent.

All these factors have given Washington a chance for a strong finishing kick -- or the opposite. While Heinicke likened the first matchup with Dallas to the Iron Bowl rivalry, one player who participated in that game said it’s "nothing like the Iron Bowl."

"But it's the same mentality," said defensive tackle Daron Payne, who played at Alabama, "it's a got-to-have-it type game and we've definitely got to have it."