The Washington Football Team played one of its most complete games of the season in its 41-16 Thanksgiving victory over the Dallas Cowboys. Here are five takeaways from Washington's second straight win.
1. Antonio Gibson introduced himself to the nation.
Antonio Gibson has been one of the best rookies since the start of the 2020 season. The third-round pick has used his power to break tackles, his shiftiness to slip through holes and his speed to run away from defenders. Entering Thursday's game, Gibson averaged 4.5 yards per carry and led all rookie running backs with eight rushing touchdowns.
Washington fans have seen Gibson's skillset week in and week out, but Gibson introduced himself to the rest of the nation with his 136-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Cowboys. He's the first rookie to score three touchdowns on Thanksgiving since Randy Moss in 1998.
"Honestly, it's the story of my life," Gibson said. "Every time the spotlight comes on, it seems like God is always watching down on me. If you can think back to the SMU game, I feel like that right there put me on the map to get where I am now. And to be able to come out on national TV and do this is an amazing feeling."
Washington (3-2 division, 4-7 overall) made a concerted effort to feed Gibson early and often. He received 15 touches (11 carries and four receptions) for 64 yards in the opening half, and his five-yard touchdown gave his team a 7-3 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Gibson was relatively quiet in the second and third quarters, but he delivered with the game on the line. Holding a 20-16 lead, Washington had just stuffed a fake punt to take over deep in Cowboys' territory. On the next play, Gibson took the hand-off and scampered 23 yards into the end zone.
And on the next possession, Gibson's 37-yard score all but sealed the division-leading victory. With 11 rushing touchdowns this season, Gibson is two behind Alfred Morris for the rookie franchise record.
"He's very special," McLaurin said of Gibson, "and I don't think he knows how good to he can be."
2. Washington was balanced on offense once again.
Quarterback Alex Smith stuffed the stat sheet against the New York Giants and Detroit Lions, but those performances did not result in victories. Over the past two weeks, however, Washington has been much more balanced and secured victories because of it.
Of Washington's 338 yards Thursday -- the sixth straight game it has eclipsed 325 yards -- 182 came on the ground and 156 were through the air. Smith relied on a strong running game and took what the defense gave him, which resulted in him completing 19 of his 26 passes and finding Logan Thomas for a five-yard touchdown in the second quarter to put Washington ahead, 17-10.
His lone mistake was a third-quarter interception, which could have been game-changing if not for wide receiver Terry McLaurin running down Jaylon Smith to save a touchdown. The Cowboys ended up settling for a field goal to pull within 20-16 -- the closest it would get for the rest of the game.
Smith is now 8-4 in games he's started and finished for Washington. Going back to 2015, he is 10-0 when he throws for fewer than 200 yards and completes at least 65 percent of his passes.
"It's important that we continue to keep growing and developing, and I really think we're finding our identity and getting better as the weeks have gone on," Smith said. "Wins only help encourage that and fuel that, so I think it's important to keep that going."
3. "Everything he works on, he excels at."
That's what head coach Ron Rivera said about McLaurin following the Cleveland Browns game Sept. 28, and it is especially relevant following McLaurin's performance on Thanksgiving.
Offensively, McLaurin was as good as he's been all season with seven catches for 92 yards (no other Washington player had more than 21). He is now the NFL's leading receiver with 963 yards and has had at least 74 yards the past six games.
But perhaps the biggest play of the game had nothing to do with McLaurin's receiving ability. On 3rd-and-10 from midfield, Smith delivered a pass to what he thought was a wide open McLaurin. Instead, the ball landed in the hands of Jaylon Smith, who saw a lot of open field between him and the end zone. What he did not realize was McLaurin was gaining ground behind him.
McLaurin's improbable shoestring tackle not only saved the game-tying touchdown but inspired the defense to get a stop inside the 5-yard line. And despite giving up a short field goal, Washington maintained some of the momentum it built throughout the third quarter. That carried over to the other side of the ball, as the offensive scored the final 21 points of a runaway victory.
"Huge turning point," Smith said of McLaurin's tackle. "[The interception was] the one critical error I feel like I wish I had back because like I said, even if you eat that one it's not the end of the world. You're certainly probably going to punt them deep. Thankful for Terry making that tackle and our defense bailing us out – bailing me out – because four points at that point in the game was a big changer."
4. The defense came up big when necessary.
As has been the case all season, the defense struggled early on. The Cowboys gained 132 yards and scored 10 points on their opening two drives, which included a 54-yard touchdown from quarterback Andy Dalton to wide receiver Amari Cooper. Washington has now allowed seven plays of at least 50 yards this season -- tied for the most in the NFL -- and all of them have come in the first half.
But from that point on, the players did everything defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio could have asked of them. They limited Dallas to 115 yards of total offense, sacked Dalton three times and forced two turnovers -- the second of which defensive end Montez Sweat returned for a 15-yard touchdown in the game's final minutes. When the Cowboys had a 1st-and-goal from the 4-yard line after Smith's interception, the defense backed them up six yards the next three plays to force a field goal. That allowed Washington to hold onto a lead it would never relinquish.
There were several individual performances of note; linebacker Cole Holcomb led the team with 10 tackles, while defensive end Chase Young had a sack and two tackles for loss and defensive tackle Tim Settle recorded his fourth sack in the past five games. Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen were also solid clogging up the middle.
"The biggest thing we've done differently is just trusting each other," Young said about the defense's improved play the past two weeks. "When we trust each other, that's what you see out there on the field today."
5. Alone in first place in the NFC East
It took Rivera 42 days to get his first two wins as Washington's coach. His next two came in a span of five days.
After back-to-back victories, Washington is now in sole possession of first place in the NFC East standings, though that distinction may be short-lived. If the New York Giants (3-7) defeat the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, they'll move into first place because of their two victories over Washington this season. And if the Philadelphia Eagles (3-6-1) beat the Seattle Seahawks on Monday Night Football, they'll jump both Washington and the Giants.
Still, Washington has to feel good about how it played Thursday and where it stands in the division entering the final stretch. The Cowboys entered Week 12 with the easiest remaining schedule, and now Washington is a game up on them and has the tiebreaker.
Washington has a difficult stretching coming up against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the San Francisco 49ers and the Seahawks, but the Eagles' and Giants' remaining games are tough as well. If Rivera's team can win at least one of its next three games, it'll remain in playoff contention before playing the Carolina Panthers and Eagles to close out the year.
"All that we've been through this year -- the ups and the downs from the offseason to now -- and to be in first place in the division, that's something to be proud of," McLaurin said. "But we can't celebrate like we just won the whole division. We still got a lot of the season left, and we're going to try and take advantage of this long break and get ready for an undefeated Pittsburgh team. So, it feels good to be leading our division right now, but we've got a lot of football left."