On Sunday, the Washington Football Team will host Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for its first game out of the bye week. The feeling of playing against arguably the greatest quarterback of all time is one Taylor Heinicke is all too familiar with.
"That game is probably the reason I'm still here," Heinicke said on Wednesday, referring to Washington's Wild Card matchup against the Buccaneers in January.
The game was an unfortunate end to an exciting playoff push, as the team fell 31-23 to Tampa Bay. For Heinicke, it was a life-changing experience, one that led to a new contract and eventually being named Washington's starting quarterback.
The week of preparation has allowed Heinicke to reflect on how far he's come and prepare for what's coming next.
"We've been watching a good bit and it brings back good memories and stuff," Heinicke said. "But again, it's a new challenge this week, so hopefully we can have a better outcome this year."
Heinicke was presumably exhausted after the game; he got home around 2 a.m., after all, but his night didn't end there. He had to scour through the "hundreds" of texts and notifications he got during the game. And naturally, the adrenaline of playing in a postseason game is a little difficult to shake.
"I want to say I only got like 45 minutes to sleep that night," Heinicke said.
There was something else besides the excitement that dominated Heinicke's psyche. He had a strong feeling that his life was about to change.
Heinicke, who was named the starter hours before kickoff and mere weeks removed from sleeping on his sister's couch, had nearly propelled Washington to pulling off an upset over the Buccaneers. He juked defenders and played as if there was nothing to lose while finishing the night with 352 total yards and a touchdown.
There's no such thing as moral victories in the NFL, but the performance did earn Heinicke another opportunity.
"It was gutsy," Head coach Ron Rivera said of Heinicke's performance. "It really was. It was one of those things that -- a guy like him who works hard at what he does, he creates an opportunity for himself. We'll see what happens."
The Washington Football Team continues preparations for its Week 10 matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Photos by Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)
What happened was Washington signed Heinicke to a two-year deal, and seven months later, when Ryan Fitzpatrick was injured in the season opener, Heinicke was elevated to the starting signal-caller. So yeah, things have gotten better for Heinicke since last year, when he was coming to grips with embracing a life after football.
"Again, my life has changed dramatically," Heinicke said. "I thought I was done with football last year. So since that game until now, made some good money and just feel a lot more comfortable in life. It's a totally different feeling from what I was feeling this point last year."
While Heinicke's situation has changed, the same cannot be said for the Buccaneers. The reigning Super Bowl champion's roster is largely the same, outside of a couple of injuries. They still have Brady, who is still playing like a top quarterback.
"It's pretty much the same deal," Heinicke said. "It's about who goes out there and executes better."
Washington is hoping to end the season in a similar fashion as it did last season, when it won five of its last seven games. While the team has failed to play constantly through the first eight games, there have been some signs in the last two games that it's trying to fix that issue.
Going against one of the best teams in the conference is going to be a task no matter what. A little bit of Heinicke magic might give Washington a chance to get different results in Round 2.
"I play better and I feel like the last two weeks, it's getting back to that," Heinicke said. "I'm gonna have a lot more fun out there and just going out there and playing the game I love.