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Sunday, December 10, 2023

Commanders handed Eagles their first loss by beating them at their own game


PHILADELPHIA — Ron Rivera always acts as the pillar of strength for the Commanders in their world that is so filled with chaos. In the midst of their never-ending circus, he’s their rock, their stability, the one who always finds the right words to keep his team from falling apart.

Yet there he was on Monday night, less than a week after he attended the funeral of his mother, and just minutes after his team ended the Philadelphia Eagles‘ perfect season and maybe, hopefully, kickstarted a special season of their own, unable to find anything to say at all. His lip started quivering. Then the tears started flowing.

“My mother would’ve been proud,” he said, just before he walked away.

There was a lot of pride from everyone in the Washington organization over what the Commanders (5-5) did on Monday night, beating the Eagles 32-21 at Lincoln Financial Field in a performance that was equal parts dominant, resilient and gritty. 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 capitalizing on fourth-quarter mistakes.

It was their 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 that means to him,” receiver Terry McLaurin told his teammates after Rivera walked away. “It means a lot to everybody in this locker room. We set the damn tone. We took it to them. We don’t got to take s*** from nobody.”

“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 to the interview room. “It resonates with these guys. The hard work starts to pay off. Things have started 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 have now won four of their last five games — and they’re still stinging from the game they gave away to the Minnesota Vikings last weekend. They believe they are a team on the rise, and they are playing with confidence.

Rivera wants them to feed off that. That’s why his pre-game 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 post-game locker room was a party, with loud music playing and players standing on stools, dancing and rapping long after the game was over. But it was a party they absolutely 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 ran for 168 yards in a closer-than-expected 29-17 loss. The Texans were able to stay in it until the fourth quarter, but they had no passing attack to back up their ground game. And let’s face it: They’re not a good team.

The Commanders could ground and pound away at the Eagles because they’re better than Houston. And they had a weapon in the passing game — their special connection between quarterback Taylor Heinicke (17 of 29, 211 yards) and Terry McLaurin. In the first half, when they were racking up 100 rushing yards already and building a 20-14 lead, McLaurin helped open things up 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 really, so many other teams this season — give Rivera some credit. He ignored his “Riverboat” instincts and stuck with what was working 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 one thing you’ve got to do is you’ve got to stick with it,” Rivera said. “You’ve got to pound it.”

And it worked. Just look at this dominance: After fumbling away their first drive — literally, when a strip sack by Eagles defensive end Josh Sweat forced a turnover and set Philly up for an Eagles touchdown — the Commanders’ next five drives were punishing. Four of them averaged 14 plays, 70 yards and 7 ½ minutes. The other one was an eight-play, 30-yard field goal drive that only lasted 1:06 because that’s all that was left in the half.

Washington dominated the time of possession, 40:24 to 19:36. In the first half, they held the ball for 17:38 more than the Eagles did — the largest first-half margin in that category in the history of their franchise.

“The guys did the things 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 Jalen Hurts down — keep him off the field.”

They sure did that. Hurts’ MVP candidacy took a huge hit as he completed just 17 of 26 passes for 175 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in his limited time with the ball. He did run for a touchdown, but only had six carries for 28 yards.

And Hurts didn’t really get to do much until late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, which the Commanders began 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 C.J. Gardner-Johnson seemingly set up a heartbreaking finish for Washington, fortune turned their way in dramatic fashion.

First, the Commanders forced a fumble from 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. Then the Washington defense went to work again, forcing a three-and-out by the fourth-ranked offense in the NFL.

And on the next Commanders possession, when Heinicke slid to take a sack on third down, Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham hit him while he was on his knees for a roughing the passer penalty that just about ended the game. They added one more touchdown, when the Eagles flubbed their last-ditch effort for a miracle and defensive end Casey Toohill picked up a loose ball that Eagles receiver DeVonta Smith had flung back towards his own end zone.

But that was just the signal for the party to start. And now the Commanders are hopeful that they can keep it going.

“Right now we’re playing really well,” Heinicke said. “To get a win like this, it’s a huge confidence-boost for our team.” 

“This is a team that’s been resilient all year,” McLaurin added. “We’ve had our ups and downs, but we never wavered. We never quit on each other.”

That’s what Rivera has been trying to get them to do, through all of their issues and injuries and the constant investigations into the Commanders owner. He’s implored them to block out the noise, to shake off their 1-4 start, to believe that 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 this, we’ve got the kind 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 Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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