NFC East Reporter
PHILADELPHIA — Ron Rivera always acts as the commanders’ pillar of strength in their chaotic world. In the midst of their endless circus, he is their rock, their stability, who always finds the right words to prevent their team from collapsing.
Yet there he was on Monday night, less than a week after attending his mother’s funeral, and minutes after his team ended the Philadelphia Eagles’ perfect season and maybe, hopefully, began a special season, unable to find them. nothing to say. His lip began to tremble. Then the tears started to flow.
“My mother would have been proud,” he said, just before he left.
There was plenty of pride from everyone in the Washington organization for what the Chiefs (5-5) did Monday night, beating the Eagles 32-21 at Lincoln Financial Field in a performance that was equal parts domineering, resilient and tough. They beat the Eagles (8-1) at their own game, pounding them on the ground to the tune of 152 yards, then forcing turnovers and taking advantage of fourth-quarter mistakes.
It was his biggest win of the season. It was probably the biggest win of Rivera’s two and a half years in Washington. And for quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who surely saved his job for at least another week, “It was probably the biggest win of my career.”
Yes, it was that big.
“You can see how much this means to him,” catcher Terry McLaurin told his teammates after Rivera left. “It means a lot to everybody in this locker room. We set the damn tone. We brought it to them. We don’t have to take crap from anybody.”
“It means a lot, just because the guys were able to stay focused on what’s important,” Rivera said after he was finally able to come into the interview room. “It resonates with these guys. The hard work is starting to pay off. Things are starting to turn the corner and pay off.”
That may be true, because even though the Commanders are still in the basement of the NFC East, they’ve now won four of their last five games, and they’re still stinging from the game they handed the Minnesota Vikings last weekend. They believe they are a team on the rise, and they play with confidence.
Rivera wants them to feed on this. That’s why his pregame message to his team was “Don’t be surprised. Don’t be surprised after the game.”
Oh, they weren’t. But they sure were happy. The locker room after the game was a party, with loud music and players standing on the stools, dancing and rapping long after the game was over. But it was a party they saw coming. When they went to work last week, they studied what the Houston Texans nearly did to the Eagles last Thursday night, when they rushed for 168 yards in a closer-than-expected 29-17 loss. The Texans were able to hang in there until the fourth quarter, but they didn’t have a passing attack to bolster their ground game. And let’s face it: they’re not a good team.
The Chiefs could beat and beat the Eagles because they are better than Houston. And they had a weapon in the passing game: their special connection between quarterback Taylor Heinicke (17-for-29, 211 yards) and Terry McLaurin. In the first half, when they were already racking up 100 rushing yards and building a 20-14 lead, McLaurin helped break things open with six catches for 76 yards on his way to eight for 128.
And while the Eagles didn’t miss nearly as many tackles against Washington as they did against the Texans, and indeed so many other teams this season, they give Rivera some credit. He ignored his “Riverboat” instincts and stuck with what worked on the ground, giving the Eagles a heavy dose of rookie running back Brian Robinson (26-86-1) and veteran Antonio Gibson (14-44-1) .
“The only thing you have to do is you have to stay,” Rivera said. “You have to hit it.”
And it worked. Just look at this dominance: After getting their first play, literally, when a sack by Eagles defensive end Josh Sweat forced a turnover and set Philly up for an Eagles touchdown, the next five games of the commanders were punished. Four of them averaged 14 plays, 70 yards and 7 1/2 minutes. The other was an eight-play, 30-yard field goal that lasted just 1:06 because that’s all that was left in the half.
Washington dominated time of possession, 40:24 to 19:36. In the first half, they held the ball for 17:38 more than the Eagles, the largest first half margin in that category in their franchise history.
“The guys did the things that the coaches put together,” Rivera said. “The guys stuck to the plan. The coaches stuck to the plan.
“We found one of the best ways to slow down Jalen Hurts: keep him off the field.”
They sure did. Hurts’ MVP bid took a big hit as he completed just 17 of 26 passes for 175 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in his limited time with the ball. He ran for a touchdown, but had just six carries for 28 yards.
And Hurts couldn’t do much until late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, which the Commanders opened with a 23-14 lead. And that’s where the Eagles, facing adversity for the first time all season, fell apart. After an Eagles touchdown and an interception by Philly safety CJ Gardner-Johnson seemingly set up a heartbreaking finish for Washington, fortunes turned their way in dramatic fashion.
First, the Chiefs forced a fumble by Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert, setting up a 55-yard field goal by Joey Slye. Then, after a 51-yard pass from Jalen Hurts to Quez Watkins, cornerback Benjamin St.-Juste forced another fumble. Washington’s defense then went to work again, forcing a three-and-out by the fourth-ranked offense in the NFL.
And on the Commanders’ next possession, when Heinicke slid for a sack on third down, Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham hit him while on his knees for a nearly game-ending passer penalty. They added one more touchdown, when the Eagles launched their last-ditch effort and defensive end Casey Toohill scooped up a loose ball that Eagles wide receiver DeVonta Smith had thrown into his own end zone.
But that was just the signal for the party to begin. And now the commanders are hopeful that they can continue.
“We’re playing really well right now,” Heinicke said. “Getting a win like this is a huge confidence boost for our team.”
“This is a team that has been resilient all year,” McLaurin added. “We’ve had our ups and downs, but we’ve never wavered. We’ve never given up on each other.”
That’s what Rivera has tried to do to them, through all his problems and injuries and constant investigations into the owners of the commanders. He’s asked them to shut out the noise, shake off their 1-4 start, believe they’re a better team than they’ve been for most of the year.
And on Monday night, in spectacular fashion, they absolutely did.
“You feel like you’re right,” Rivera said. “In a situation like that, we’ve got the type of guys in that locker room that can do things. And we’re starting to see it come together.”
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him on Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
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