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Rivera uses Bucs win to drive home his 'David vs. Goliath' motivational tactic

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Ron Rivera had a stone in his hand and a bug in his ear -- a locker room full of bugs, to be precise. To the veteran coach, it was pretty clear what had to happen next.

Minutes after the Washington Football Team's biggest victory since last Jan. 3, and perhaps the most impressive triumph of Rivera's season-and-a-half tenure, the time had come for the coach to pay off a theme he'd been hammering home all week.

"Throw the stone!" numerous players yelled, and Rivera did not disappoint, hurling the river rock against a sign affixed to one of the walls and turning the home locker room at FedExField into a house of bedlam.

Washington, after all, had just injected adrenaline into the veins of what had looked to be a lost season with a 29-19 upset of the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, closing out the game with a prolonged and emphatic touchdown drive. In doing so, Rivera's players fulfilled the Old Testament-inspired prophecy their coach had preached to them all week.

"Hey, this tells me what you guys are capable of," Rivera exclaimed after his stone throw. "You just measured yourself to Goliath, alright? You just measured yourself and you found out who you are and what you're capable of… Don't ever let anybody tell you 'You can't,' that doesn't want to tell you, 'You can.' (Expletive) them!"

Though Washington (3-6) remains tied for last in the NFC East -- and though its most decorated player, second-year edge rusher Chase Young, suffered a torn ACL in Sunday's game that will end his season -- there is suddenly cause for optimism in the locker room, and perhaps in some sectors of the fan base. If Washington can put together a complete and gritty game like Sunday's vanquishing of the Bucs, which ended a four-game losing streak, perhaps it can summon another stirring late-season run and get back into the playoff hunt.

As Rivera prepares to confront his past this coming Sunday, when he travels to Charlotte to face the Carolina Panthers team he coached from 2011-19 (and its newly re-signed ex-MVP QB), Washington's immediate future seems at least a little brighter.

"We were going through a rough skid there," conceded quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who for the second time in 10 months came through with a strong performance against his Bucs counterpart, the living legend known as Tom Brady. "I feel like we'd played pretty well the previous two games, against Green Bay and Denver, but there were two or three things we were missing. We finally put it all together. We know it's a long season, but we know there's something to play for, and that's pretty exciting."

If few outsiders saw Sunday's upset coming, Rivera was determined to instill a sense of possibility in his players. At the first team meeting following the bye week, Rivera asked, "Have you guys ever heard the story of David and Goliath?" After everyone answered in the affirmative, the coach continued, "Just so you know, Goliath is a seven-point favorite."

Later in the week, Rivera told his players, "By the way, when David was asked in his post-battle presser, 'How did you beat the mighty Goliath?' he answered, 'He was too big to miss.'"

Finally, at the close of his Saturday night remarks at the team hotel in Alexandria, Rivera intoned, "If there's anything you learn from this week, it's that for every question, there's an answer… for every problem, there's a solution… for every Goliath, there's a David… for every giant, there's a stone."

Rivera punctuated his remarks by pulling out a stone, flipping it into the air and walking off the podium. He'd thought about throwing it against the wall of the hotel ballroom, "but there was wood paneling, and it probably would've put a hole in the wall and cost us a bunch of money."

The next day, of course, Rivera's players -- to borrow from Vince Vaughn's Swingers character Trent Walker -- were so money and they didn't even know it.

After arriving at FedEx to identical, handwritten notes on the stools at their lockers ("For every Goliath, there's a stone" – David), with a stone atop each index card, Heinicke and his teammates played with purpose and passion.

Even with one standout edge rusher, Montez Sweat, sidelined by a fractured jaw and the other, Young, suffering his brutal knee injury midway through the second quarter, Washington's defense refused to buckle. Cornerback William Jackson III and safety Bobby McCain intercepted Brady on consecutive first-quarter drives, and the Bucs were held to season lows in points, total yards (273) and first downs (14).

Heinicke, meanwhile, was locked in all afternoon, completing 26 of 32 passes for 256 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. And the quarterback and his fellow offensive players were at their best when it mattered most: After the Bucs closed to 23-19 on Brady's 40-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans with 10:55 left in the game, Washington snuffed out any threat of a comeback by grinding out a 19-play, 80-yard scoring march that lasted 10:26 -- the team's longest drive in terms of plays since the 1991 season, and the longest by any NFL team since Week 7 of the 2018 campaign.

Check out the top photos from the Washington Football Team's 29-19 upset win over Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Karlee Sell/Washington Football Team)

It was, quite simply, "a grown-man drive," as receiver DeAndre Carter -- whose 20-yard touchdown catch gave Washington a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter -- put it to reporters after the game.

"It was really cool to see the guys in the huddle on that final drive," Heinicke said. "It's hard to explain, but once you get those first couple of third-down conversions, and the clock keeps rolling, the energy and the confidence in the huddle just explodes. It was the biggest it's been all year. You do that to one of the best defenses in the NFL, in that situation, and it makes us feel like we can do that on anybody."

Washington ran the ball on 13 of those 19 plays, but on the biggest one of all, Heinicke threw to his most trusted target. After the Bucs took their final timeout with 3:05 remaining, Washington faced a third-and-5 from the Tampa Bay 15. Heinicke zipped a crisp pass over the middle to receiver Terry McLaurin, who was sandwiched between a pair of defensive backs. Despite absorbing a punishing hit from safety Jordan Whitehead just as the ball arrived, McLaurin held on for a six-yard reception that set up first-and-goal.

"If there's been one constant on this team, it's Terry," said Rivera, who said he endured about seven or eight very nervous minutes on the sideline when McLaurin (six catches, 59 yards) left the game in the second quarter for X-rays on his collarbone, which proved to be negative.

Said Heinicke: "Our guys were laying their bodies on the line. When [the Bucs] started calling timeouts, we figured, 'We can close it out.' I said to the offensive linemen, 'You guys have been kicking ass all day. Let's finish it off.'"

With 31 seconds remaining, Rivera had one, final decision to make: Washington faced a fourth-and-goal at the 1, and the coach initially elected to send on the field-goal unit before calling timeout to ponder the move.

"I went to the sideline thinking we were gonna kick it," Heinicke said. "I was standing next to Rivera and I remember him putting down his microphone and saying, 'Go for it.' It was really cool."

Running back Antonio Gibson rumbled to his left for the game-clinching score, setting up that rockin' postgame celebration in a raucous locker room. The hope now is that the mojo that provoked Rivera's throwing of the stone will not fade away as he prepares for an emotional return to Carolina -- against a Panthers team energized by the unlikely reappearance of quarterback Cam Newton, a former league MVP who'll be looking to ruin his former coach's day.

"Watching his first couple of plays (a touchdown run and a touchdown pass against the Cardinals), and what he did afterward, we'll have our work cut out for us," Rivera said of Newton, who signed with the Panthers last Thursday. "He's throwing it well, and trying to tackle him is like trying to tackle a tree."

Is Rivera is setting up another analogy? If so, good luck getting all those trees into the visitors' locker room.

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