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3 Keys: How Washington Can Beat The Panthers

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The defensive prepares to run during Washington Football Team practice on Dec. 25, 2020. (Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)

A Washington Football Team win, paired with a New York Giants loss to the Baltimore Ravens, would result in the franchise's first NFC East title since 2015. Here are three keys for Washington as it hosts the Carolina Panthers in Week 16.

1. Cause Havoc Defensively

Washington's offense, which is already one of the worst in the NFL statistically, could be significantly hampered at FedExField on Sunday.

Standout wide receiver Terry McLaurin is doubtful with an ankle injury, while quarterback Alex Smith (calf) and running back Antonio Gibson (toe) are questionable -- meaning the unit could be without its three most important pieces.

This predicament puts significant pressure on the defense, though the group has responded tremendously over the past three games by limiting the Pittsburgh Steelers to 17 points, scoring two touchdowns against the San Francisco 49ers and shutting down the Seattle Seahawks late in an eventual 20-15 defeat. For the season, Washington is fifth in scoring defense (21.1 points allowed per game) and tied for sixth with 40 sacks. And while it is in the bottom half of the league with 18 takeaways, half of those have come in the past five games.

Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio's crew will have to take advantage of a Panthers offense that has been average throughout the season and will likely be without star running back Christian McCaffrey and veteran tackle Russell Okung.

"For me, you're just always pushing and trying to get a level of play that maybe is even unrealistic to get to, but you're going to push for it anyway," Del Rio said of the unit, which ranks third in passing defense and fourth in total defense. "I talk regularly about not trying to be perfect but giving perfect effort. What I'm looking for is a defense that flies around and that plays fast, that plays aggressive, that understands where they belong, that understands their assignments, that trusts each other, that plays with their hair on fire. When you're doing that, then it looks great.

"When you do watch it and you see it, you say: 'OK, how come we can't do that more often?' I'm looking to see that. It's a constant push, really. It doesn't stop. We'll relax sometime whenever the season ends, and hopefully we can extend it. I'm looking for our defensive to play really fast and really aggressive and help our football team win games."

2. Wide Receivers Must Step Up

Washington will be without roughly 35% of its receiving production if McLaurin cannot play. And while tight end Logan Thomas and running back J.D. McKissic have had career seasons, the offense will need its other wideouts to step up.

That starts with Cam Sims, who has operated as the No. 2 receiver since Week 9 but has been held to fewer than 30 yards in four of the past six games. He'll benefit even more if Smith is able to play, as the two have had a good rapport since Smith took over as the starter in Week 10.

Steven Sims Jr. and Isaiah Wright occupy the slot receiver position, though they have only combined for 49 receptions and 404 yards this season. They'll both likely receive more targets if McLaurin is sidelined.

The wild card is fourth-round rookie Antonio Gandy-Golden. The big, physical pass-catcher has been on Injured Reserve with a hamstring injury since Oct. 24, but he returned to practice Dec. 10, which started the 21-day window to either add him to the active roster or keep him on IR the rest of the season. He was not much of a factor before the injury, but he would be another threat the Panthers' secondary has to account for.

"AGG looked good," head coach Ron Rivera said Friday. "He had another good day of practice. We'll see how he is tomorrow and then we'll see how he is Saturday and then we'll make a decision on that."

Fortunately, the wide receivers will not have to carry offensive coordinator Scott Turner's unit. Thomas and McKissic have been consistently productive, and the Panthers do not have a top-tier defense. In fact, they do not rank better than 17th in any of the major statistical category and are allowing opponents to convert 50% of its third downs. Add in the potential return of Gibson, and Washington will have a bevy of ways to move the ball Sunday.

"We have conversations all the time about what our players do best and what we can do and help them to do those things," Turner said. "The injuries are a part of the game. There's always going to be different things that come up. You just always survey the situation that you have and then try to make the most of it. I feel like, for the most part, we've done that."

3. Be Disciplined

Washington has not made the playoffs in five seasons, which is longer than many of its starters have played in the NFL. They have not been in many games with the stakes as big as they will be Sunday, and that added excitement could lead to overcompensation and deviation from the game plan.

That could manifest itself in turnovers, penalties, missed assignments and poor communication -- all of which would help the Panthers try to pull the upset and significantly hinder Washington's playoff chances. And if Washington loses, it will need to beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the regular season finale while also receiving some help.

Fortunately, this young team has overcome injuries, quarterback changes and close defeats this season. Rivera believes this resiliency will help the team stayed laser focused on the task at hand Sunday.

"That's exactly what our players have been able to do is keep their focus on football and be where their feet are. I think that's been one of the pluses for our guys is that they've been able to handle those situations, those circumstances and determine what's important to football. That's been helpful. I think the big thing about our guys is they want to learn, they want to grow, they want to become a good football team. Having something to play for every week, I think, has really helped their focus and attention. That's been a big plus for what we're trying to do moving forward."

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