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5 Takeaways From Washington's 2021 Schedule

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Start marking your calendars because the Washington Football Team’s schedule is here.

The 2021 edition, which was released Wednesday night, includes rivalries, rematches and primetime matchups as Washington looks to become the NFC East's first repeat champion since 2004.

Here are five takeaways after delving into the 17-game slate:

1. Offensive Rookie of the Year vs. Defensive Rookie of the Year

Washington surprised no one in 2020 when it took Ohio State defensive end Chase Young No. 2 overall. Four picks later, the quarterback-needy Los Angeles Chargers made the almost equally unsurprising move by grabbing Oregon's Justin Herbert as the future of their franchise.

Needless to say, the moves worked out for both teams, as Young and Herbert went on to win Rookie of the Year honors. Now two of the NFL's best young talents are going to meet for the first time, and Washington fans will get to see the action at FedExField.

Herbert certainly had no trouble tearing defenses apart in 2020. He took over starting duties from Tyrod Taylor in Week 2 and nearly shocked the Kansas City Chiefs by completing 66% of his passes for 311 yards with a touchdown and an interception. What's more impressive is that Herbert continued to improve. He threw eight touchdowns to just one interception in his final 140 pass attempts of the season.

Still, Herbert has not faced many players like Young. Like Herbert, Young also got better late in the season, grabbing three sacks in his final four games to go with 15 tackles as well as two forced fumbles and recoveries, one of which went for a touchdown. He was PFF’s highest-graded rookie last season, and his 87.2 overall grade during the regular season ranked third among rookie edge defenders since 2006.

Young's leadership, which involved breaking down pregame huddles and cheering on his teammates, proved to be just as impactful to the team, which former quarterback Alex Smith called “crazy unusual” for a rookie. "It's kind of cool to watch a young guy with that much enthusiasm and how he spreads it," head coach Ron Rivera said during the season.

Young is more of an all-around player as opposed to a pass-rush specialist, so expect Young to affect the season opener in more ways than bringing Herbert to the ground.

2. Welcome to prime time

Washington was coming off a 3-13 season in 2019, and the 2020 schedule release reflected that with the team initially receiving zero Sunday or Monday night games. Its only nationally televised matchup was a Thanksgiving bout with the Dallas Cowboys.

But as Washington climbed back into the playoff race, shellacking the Cowboys in Texas, it earned a Sunday night showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles to end the regular season. And after winning its first division title since 2015 that night, it pushed the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Wild Card round the following weekend.

Fast forward four months, and Washington looks like an emerging NFC contender behind second-year head coach Ron Rivera, a stacked defense and an offense with a bevy of new playmakers. The league seems to agree, as it gave Washington three primetime games in 2021: Week 2 vs. the New York Giants (Thursday night), Week 12 vs. the Seattle Seahawks (Monday night) and Week 16 at the Dallas Cowboys (Sunday night).

The Giants' contest, which follows a season-opening home game against the Los Angeles Chargers, is Washington's first primetime action since Week 3 of the 2019 campaign. About two months later, Washington's players and coaches will be able to enjoy Thanksgiving with their families before the team hosts the Seahawks in a Monday night clash on ESPN. And about a month after that, Washington is set to travel back to Dallas for a matchup on Sunday Night Football.

There are plenty of reasons to be excited about this team entering 2021, and Rivera provided a few during his post-draft press conference. It returned major offensive contributors Logan Thomas, Antonio Gibson, J.D. McKissic and Terry McLaurin; added multiple weapons in Curtis Samuel and Adam Humphries; and brought in a veteran quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, to distribute the ball all over the field.

Defensively, Rivera believes Washington can be even better and loves what defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has done this offseason to gear up for the 2021 campaign.

Last season, Washington earned the attention of the entire NFL. This year it'll aim to keep it.

"There's a lot of positives that are going to come out of free agency and the draft and the development of this football team," Rivera said.

3. A gauntlet of division champions

Rivera often talked about "measuring sticks" last season that would show where Washington stacked up against some of the best teams in the league. The biggest one came from Week 13-15, which featured matchups against the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers -- the NFC's representative in Super Bowl LIV two years ago -- and the Seattle Seahawks, who are consistently in the postseason.

This year will feature an even higher measuring stick, as Washington will face four division champions from Weeks 3-7. That starts by visiting the Buffalo Bills, who won the AFC East for the first time 1995. The duo of fringe-MVP candidate Josh Allen and wideout Stephon Diggs fueled the second-most explosive offense in the NFL, as Allen put up a career-high 4,544 passing yards and Diggs led the league with 1,535 receiving yards.

Two weeks later, Washington will be back at FedExField to face the New Orleans Saints. The Saints, who won the NFC South for the fourth consecutive season, will be without the recently retired Drew Brees for the first time since 2005. While the team decides between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill as its new signal-caller, its defense has become its strongest unit, as it forced the third-most turnovers and allowed the fourth-fewest total yards in 2020. The Saints also still have Alvin Kamara, who had 1,688 scrimmage yards last season.

Washington then has back-to-back matchups against the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers. The Chiefs struggled to keep Patrick Mahomes upright during Super Bowl LV, but they have completely overhauled their offensive line by trading for left tackle Orlando Brown, signing guard Joe Thuney and drafting Oklahoma's Creed Humphrey in the second round. The Packers, on the other hand, continue to be the stars of the NFC North under head coach Matt LaFleur, who has led the team to consecutive NFC Championship games, reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers.

It is also worth noting that Washington will play four of the last five league MVPs, three of which (Mahomes, Rodgers and Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan) come during that early season stretch. The fifth one, who many consider the greatest quarterback of all time, will come to FedExField two weeks later after Washington's bye week.

4. A rematch with Tampa Tom

Tom Brady made history last season by winning his seventh Super Bowl at the seasoned age of 43, but there were moments during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Wild Card matchup with Washington where some thought he could be sent home early.

Things looked dim for Washington when Smith was ruled inactive hours before kickoff, leaving Taylor Heinicke to line up under center. But Heinicke, who had not started a game since 2018, put together an inspired performance of 306 yards to go with a passing touchdown and an interception. Heinicke eluded one defender after the other -- the highlight of the game came when he scored on a diving eight-yard rushing touchdown that brought Washington within two points of tying the score -- and then left the game with a shoulder injury only to return minutes later and keep Washington in the game.

Young and Washington's vaunted defensive line did their part to contain Brady with three sacks, but the 14-time Pro Bowler still ended up gashing the team with 381 yards and two touchdowns. While there were no celebrations for moral victories after Washington's 31-23 loss, the fact that it stayed competitive throughout the game was a sign of positive growth.

Washington's roster will look a little different in the rematch, particularly on offense. Fitzpatrick is expected to be the starting quarterback, and the receiving corps features experienced veterans like Samuel and Humphries along with third-round pick Dyami Brown. Brady will also face a new group on defense with the likes of William Jackson III manning the secondary and first-round pick Jamin Davis contributing in the front seven.

The team nearly made a resounding statement by upending Brady and the Buccaneers; it will have another crack at it this year.

5. Five straight division opponents to close out the season

If Washington intends to become the first repeat NFC East champion in more than 15 years, it'll have to perform its best at the end of the season. That's because for the first time since 1970, Washington plays five-straight games against division opponents, and they just so happen to be the final five contests of the year.

Washington opens its NFC East schedule in Week 2 against the Giants, but it doesn't play another division foe until Week 14 when it welcomes the Dallas Cowboys to FedExField. So begins the unprecedented stretch that continues in Philadelphia, then to Dallas, before returning home for the Eagles and closing in New York.

Fortunately, the team will be able to draw on last year's experience of beating NFC East teams in crunch time. After all, it routed the Cowboys on Thanksgiving and held off the struggling Eagles in the regular season finale to clinch a playoff spot.

And don't expect Washington to enter any of these games unprepared, either. The players understand division victories are of the utmost importance, and those results become magnified down the stretch. Rivera should have them ready to finish strong once again.

"The interesting thing is that I started on Andy Reid's original staff with the Eagles," Rivera said after last year's schedule release, "so I have a pretty good feeling for what the [NFC East] is all about."

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