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Heinicke's strides come from mixture of accuracy, poise and moxie

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Taylor Heinicke scrambles from a defender during the Washington Football Team's Week 11 matchup against the Carolina Panthers. (Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)

There's a different version of Taylor Heinicke lining up under center than the one of weeks past. It's a closer iteration to what the Washington Football Team saw in last year's playoff game, and it's helping Washington win games.

Since Washington's bye week, Heinicke has completed 77.8% of his passes and thrown four touchdowns with no interceptions. It's the second-highest completion rate in the NFL over that span. Three of those scores came during Washington's 27-21 win over the Carolina Panthers, tying a career-high and marking the first time since Oct. 3 that he's thrown for more than one touchdown in a game.

To head coach Ron Rivera, Heinicke's performance in Sunday's victory, Washington's second straight as it tries to pull back to .500, shows just how far the quarterback has come.

"I think the biggest thing he is doing is he is starting to see things," Rivera said Sunday afternoon. "He is starting to see what he needs to see. He is throwing the windows he needs to throw."

The windows Heinicke saw against the Panthers were tight. Carolina's 173 passing yards allowed per game was the best in the NFL, and while the game plan didn't require him to make too many pass attempts, he still needed to make them count.

That box score will show that Heinicke completed 16-of-22 passes for a completion rate of 72.7%, which ranked seventh-best in Week 11. That doesn't quite speak to how well he played, though. His three touchdowns tell a better version of that story. On his first of the day -- a six-yard pass to Cam Sims -- Heinicke fit the ball between two defenders, both of which were inches from intercepting it.

"He's starting to understand, 'Hey, this is the coverage I get. These are the windows I know I have. And I've got to get it there on time.'" Rivera said.

That accuracy has been paired with an improved ability to make smarter decisions about where to distribute the ball. With Washington trailing 14-7 as the first half came to a close, Heinicke hit a covered Terry McLaurin for a 12-yard score that tied the game.

Trusting McLaurin to make a contested catch is never a bad choice, he wasn't supposed to get the ball on that play. It's a callback to Rivera's telling Heinicke to be a game manager that makes plays because they're the right decision.

"I've said it numerous times, when you see him one-on-one, you give him a shot," Heinicke said. "It's because of the catch he got today. He continues to make plays and you just want to keep giving him shots."

On Washington's opening drive of the second half, Heinicke drove the offense 66 yards downfield and found DeAndre Carter for a four-yard score on third-and-goal. Carter, who's recorded three touchdowns in as many games, has noticed a difference in the signal-caller since the bye week: his confidence has shot up.

"He's going out there and has a full grasp of the offense," Carter said. "Full grasp of every play that we're trying to run. Trust the receivers, trusting the tight ends, running backs to make plays. He's letting it rip."

The poise hasn't meant sacrificing the gutsy plays, either. Heinicke's fourth down conversion in the fourth quarter, where he drifted to the left and found John Bates before being taken to the ground, is evidence of that. It scared the hell out of Rivera, but he knows that is part of what makes Heinicke's skillset so unique.

"He can do those things and that helps," Rivera said. "It extends the play. He keeps his eyes downfield. He is trying to make plays."

This version of Heinicke -- a mixture of accuracy, poise and moxie -- has shown that it can not only help Washington win, but also turn out quality performances against top defenses.

There's now some hope that Washington, sitting at 4-6 with seven games left, could make another late playoff run. If Heinicke continues to stack strong games, it could turn into something more.

"We're seeing what he can develop into," Rivera said. "If this guy continues to manage and direct and then make plays when we need them, that's what I've always said we're hoping to get out of this is a guy that can do that."

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