Frustrated would be an appropriate way to describe the atmosphere at FedExField after the Washington Football Team's home finale against the Carolina Panthers.
The team knew what it had in front of them; a loss by the New York Giants just minutes before kickoff ensured that if Washington could beat head coach Ron Rivera's former team, it would win the NFC East for the first time since 2015. But mistakes and sloppy play abounded from the team throughout the afternoon.
Many of the issues Washington has had all season made a return in the win-and-in matchup. Three turnovers in the first half were part of a putrid start on offense, while big plays and penalties from the defense allowed Teddy Bridgewater and Curtis Samuel to carve up the unit for a 20-0 lead. It was a similar situation to the one Washington (6-9) found itself in against the Seattle Seahawks the week before, but Washington could not make enough plays down the stretch of a 20-13 defeat.
Washington was without starting quarterback Alex Smith once again as he continues to recover from his calf injury, which meant Dwayne Haskins Jr. received his second straight start, and it was hampered even further with Terry McLaurin out with an ankle injury. The return of rookie running back Antonio Gibson helped make up for their absence with 61 yards on 10 carries, but the unit still struggled more than it had in weeks.
The defense provided occasional flashes of its talent, such as a forced fumble and recovery by Chase Young, but there were also moments of uncharacteristic lapses that allowed Bridgewater to complete 19 of 28 passes for 197 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Samuel, who had 158 scrimmage yards, supplied a 45-yard run that fueled 115 yards on the ground from the Panthers.
Washington's playoff hopes are still alive, as the loss did not affect its chances at clinching the NFC East. All it needs to do is get a Week 17 win against the Philadelphia Eagles to make the playoffs.
The mistakes made an early appearance on Washington's second drive. Daron Payne provided a nine-yard sack that turned over the ball on downs, but a promising drive that placed Washington at the Panthers' 30-yard line was spoiled with a Haskins fumble that Panthers defensive end Marquis Haynes returned 19 yards. The Panthers were forced to punt on a three-and-out, but two drives later Steven Sims Jr. muffed a punt that was recovered in the end zone by Carolina.
The play was what Carolina needed for a jumpstart, because the Panthers responded to another Washington three-and-out by marching 80 yards downfield, the majority of which came from Samuel's 45-yard romp, and punched in a one-yard score to take a 13-0 lead. Carolina then took advantage of a Haskins interception and breezed into the end zone once again to extend the lead to 20. The only break came in the final minutes of the first half when Dustin Hopkins hit a 48-yard field goal to make the score 20-3 at halftime.
The defense was able to stifle the Panthers in the second half -- Young's forced fumble and recovery led to another field goal from Hopkins -- but the offense found a similar lack of production as its only other drive of the third quarter ended in a turnover on downs. After Haskins was sacked on a 4th-and-two, Washington put in Heinicke to finish the game. Although Heinicke put together a 16-play, 70-yard drive, he could not convert a 4th-and-18 at the Panthers' 22-yard line, which essentially dashed any of Washington's comeback hopes.
Washington managed to cut down Carolina's lead with a 29-yard touchdown pass to J.D. McKissic, but the ensuing onside kick was recovered by the Panthers, which allowed Bridgewater to take a knee and run out the clock.