The identity is this: Daron Payne, with the clock ticking down and a lead in peril, reading Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota on second and goal from the 4. Payne thought Mariota would run. Instead, Mariota set his feet for a quick pass. Payne was ready for that, too.
“I just got my hands up,” he said.
One of those big mitts tipped the ball in the air. In the end zone, cornerback Kendall Fuller saw Mariota’s target, the dangerous Cordarrelle Patterson, tangling with Washington safety Darrick Forrest.
“I was just trying to box out the receiver,” Forrest said.
“I was just hoping D-Fo didn’t hit me and knock the ball out,” Fuller said. “But I was just thinking [about] getting my hands under the ball, getting my elbows tight and trying to make a play on the ball.”
That’s a winning play by winning players on a team that has now won six of seven. The latest was Sunday’s tenuous 19-13 victory over the Falconsanother down-to-the-final-seconds decision that required antacids. This is fun. It’s also fragile.
“You can look at the last play of the game by the defense,” offensive tackle Charles Leno Jr. said. “That ball, who knows what would’ve happened? Daron made sure that when it was a quick pass, he got his hands up. Once you get your hands up, anything can happen. Tipped ball, get an interception. We just got to find ways to win.”
Which is what the Commanders are doing. Their margins of victory over this run that has lifted them from the misery of a 1-4 start: five, two, one, 11 (when they scored a fluke defensive touchdown on the final play of the game against the Eagles), 13 ( against the lowly Texans) and now six — when the opponent had first and goal from inside the 5 with just over a minute to go.
Fragile might describe the entire NFL. But with an offense that is limited at the sport’s most important position, it has become abundantly clear over the past six weeks how this team must get it done.
That might be a fragile formula. It’s also real, and it’s working.
“We did some things to win it,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “But we also survived it.”
That’s how this group must play — as though it must claw to survive. That’s not even a reference to Rivera’s battle with cancer two seasons ago, although it came up among the players in the wake of the 100th victory of Rivera’s coaching career, playoffs included. It’s not a reference to rookie running back Brian Robinson Jr. overcoming the gunshot wounds he suffered in a preseason robbery attempt to post the first 100-yard game of his career, needing just 18 carries for 105 yards.
You can acknowledge this group’s limitations while simultaneously acknowledging there’s a togetherness about these players and coaches. Think about the increasing effectiveness of Robinson and the running game, which ground out 176 yards Sunday and has averaged 144 over the past seven weeks. That’s not just the rookie getting more comfortable. It’s the line gaining confidence, too.
“I’m doing the best I possibly can to help [Robinson] succeed,” Leno said. “Clearly, his job is based off of my job, our job as the offensive line. We’re trying to do the right thing.”
The same applies to the defense. Fuller’s game-winning interception doesn’t come without Payne tipping the pass. Payne’s tip doesn’t win the game unless Fuller secures the ball. After he emerged from the bottom of the pile — with FedEx Field truly rocking — Fuller approached Payne.
“He said, ‘I eat, you eat,'” Fuller said. “It always goes hand in hand.”
So together, they’re eating. Not at a white-tablecloth-and-candlelight five-star bistro. Their hands are greasy. The napkins are paper. That’s fine.
“Football isn’t a game of perfection,” Fuller said. “You’re going to give up plays. But you protect every yard.”
Protecting those final four yards Sunday — and, keep in mind, the Falcons had first and goal from the 2 before Montez Sweat hauled down Mariota on Atlanta’s first attempt — got them another win. And another win puts them in a rare position for this franchise, which consistently and constantly plays from behind.
These Commanders are 7-5 as November comes to an end. Two of the three Washington teams in the past 15 years to head into December above .500 played under Jay Gruden; there was a 6-4-1 start en route to an 8-7-1 finish in 2016 and a 6-5 start that ended up 7-9 in 2018. The last Washington team to have seven wins before December: the 2008 squad , when Jim Zorn’s first team was 7-5. That group was trending downward after a 6-2 start.
This one, somehow, is going the other way. Increasingly, it’s because these Commanders know who they are, what they can and can’t do.
“They’ve gotten to where they are right now … because they believe in what they can do,” Rivera said. “There’s a lot of negativity that we’ve tried to get past and tried to work past, and [we] just constantly try to tell these guys what they can do.”
He added: “They found a common bond and common thread, and that’s doing their job and being successful and winning. They understand: It feels good. They know they’re more than capable.”
Are the Commanders capable of more? At the moment, it’s all in front of them. Win at the New York Giants next weekend, and they pull ahead of them in the NFC East. Take the bye to regroup, then face the Giants again.
Who knows? Don’t count up the wins yet. That lessens the fun. For now, go with Fuller’s reminder Sunday afternoon, the whole “football isn’t a game of perfect” bit.
It’s not, so don’t seek it here. The Commanders are far from a perfect group. But they know who they are, and right now that’s a team that has a chance to win every single week.