1. The offense finally started fast.
Heading into the regular season finale, Washington's offense was on the verge of making history, and not in a good way. The team was on the verge of going the entire season without scoring on its opening drive, which had not happened this century.
Fortunately for Washington, that streak was finally broken against the Eagles, as the offense marched down the field on a 15-play, 91-yard drive that was capped off with a five-yard pass to Terry McLaurin.
Alex Smith and Antonio Gibson, who also played despite battling injuries, helped Washington slowly move down the field. Only three of Washington's plays went for longer than 10 yards, and the unit converted four third-down attempts, the last of which was McLaurin's catch in the corner of the end zone.
Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts threw an interception on the ensuing possession, which put the ball at the Eagles' 32-yard line and allowed Dustin Hopkins to hit a 42-yard field goal four plays later. For the first time all year, Washington ended the first quarter with a double-digit lead.
That was when the unit started to cool down with back-to-back punts, which allowed the Eagles to take a 14-10 lead. But after the defense forced a three-and-out to get the ball back with 86 seconds left, Smith moved the offense to the Eagles' 13-yard line before delivering a touchdown strike to Logan Thomas.
With Washington only scoring three points for the rest of the game, its initial surge was vital to securing the division title.
2. The defense played hot and cold in the first half.
While the offense was clicking, the defense was going through some rare struggles. It started strong by forcing a punt and then recording a turnover via Kamren Curl's second-career interception, but miscues and gaffes quickly followed, which allowed the Eagles to climb back into the game.
The mistakes started after Hopkins' field goal gave Washington a 10-0 lead. The defense committed three penalties on the Eagles' 75-yard drive. Two of those came on third down, including a defensive holding by Cole Holcomb that eliminated a sack by Montez Sweat. That kept Philadelphia on the field and moved the ball to Washington's 15-yard line, and Hurts scored on a six-yard rush two plays later.
There were no penalties on the next drive, but the defense's season-long issue of allowing big plays emerged once again on a 30-yard reception by J.J. Arcega-Whiteside that set Philadelphia up at 6-yard line. That allowed Hurts to score his second rushing touchdown and give the Eagles a 14-10 lead.
That was the last of Washington's mistakes, though; the Eagles were held scoreless for the rest of the game and forced two turnovers thanks to a fumble recovery by Chase Young and an interception by Jeremy Reaves. On the Eagles' final three drives, the defense allowed only nine yards.
3. Alex Smith did enough to secure a win.
Smith missed the past two games because of a calf injury, and it was clear the offense missed him. The team dropped both matchups against the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers and could not finish fourth-quarter comebacks in either game.
Smith had barely practiced the past two weeks, and the biggest question was how the veteran would perform on his strained calf. The answer, as it turns out, was good enough to win.
Smith finished the game 22-of-32 for 162 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, and it was apparent that he was back to form by completing six of his seven first passes for 61 yards. By the time Smith hit McLaurin for his first touchdown, his passer rating was 138.0.
Smith saved one of his best throws for the end of the first half when Washington was trailing, 14-10. His throw to Thomas was placed to near perfection in a place where only the tight end could make the catch, which gave Washington a 17-14 lead at halftime.
Although he did throw two interceptions in the second half, Smith still did enough to maintain Washington's lead.
"I thought he started out really well," Rivera said after the game. "I thought there were a lot of good things that happened. I think [offensive coordinator Scott Turner] was trying to get the ball out of his hands quickly, and just trying to take care of him…and trying to make sure we kept him upright. I thought he did a good job, especially in the two-minute drive. The opening drive and the two-minute drive were about as good as it gets."
4. Washington made a critical stand inside the 5-yard line.
Washington was clinging to a 17-14 lead in the third quarter, but after an impressive interception by Marcus Epps gave Philadelphia the ball at Washington's 15-yard line, it looked like that lead was about to disappear.
But after running back Boston Scott converted a 3rd-and-1 that put the ball at the 5-yard line, the defense shut down all four of Philadelphia's attempts at getting in the end zone. Corey Clement was stuffed for a one-yard gain, and Hurts' next two passes fell incomplete. Rather than attempt a game-tying field goal, the Eagles kept the offense on the field, and Hurts' pass to Quez Watkins hit the turf, forcing a turnover on downs and keeping Washington's lead intact.
It was the Eagles' last best chance to get in the end zone, as its next three possessions ended in either a punt or a turnover.
"I've got a lot of faith in what our defense is doing," Rivera said. "It's interesting because we've come out in the first half and our defense has really shut people down. That's one of the things we saw today. In that third quarter, they're pretty stifling."
5. "We're not done."
Washington's players understand the significance of what they accomplished on Sunday Night Football. After all they had endured over the course of the season, they led the team to a division title for the first time in five years. But they also know they can't celebrate for long because the playoffs have officially started.
Washington will host Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at FedExField on Jan. 9. After dropping back-to-back games against the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs, they have won four straight games, including a 44-27 win over the Atlanta Falcons. Brady has completed 65.9% of his passes for 4,234 yards and 36 touchdowns.
Most of the team grew up watching Brady with the New England Patriots, so they understand the kind of player he has become in his career. That's why they know it is time to refocus and get ready for Saturday.
"It feels good," Young said on winning the division title. "Everything that we've been through this season…it's just a brotherhood, man. Love for one another. I just remember when we were 1-5, and it's just crazy. But we're not done."
Rivera has learned a lot about his young team and its resiliency over the past year. Now, the team has turned potential into a playoff berth, and the next test will be to survive and advance against one of the best teams in the NFC.
"Now let's see how they handle it," Rivera said. "That's the next thing. Again, don't judge us on where we've been. Judge us on where we're going. So let's see how we handle this going forward. This is a big opportunity for us."