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WFT Daily: How Washington Can Win The NFC East In Primetime

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Chase Young and Cole Holcomb celebrate a play during the Washington Football Team's game against the Carolina Panthers. (Elijah Walter Griffin Sr./Washington Football Team)

The 2020 season is here, and we have you covered as the Washington Football Team progresses through its inaugural campaign under head coach Ron Rivera. Stay up to date with "WFT Daily," which comes out every weekday evening.

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The battle for the NFC East will come down to Week 17, and the entire country will have the chance to watch it unfold.

The Washington Football Team's final matchup of the regular season against the Philadelphia Eagles was flexed to NBC's Sunday Night Football, the NFL announced Sunday night. A win would result in Washington claiming the division crown for the first time since 2015 and hosting a playoff game against either the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Los Angeles Rams.

Washington has had the spotlight placed on it twice this season: Thanksgiving Day against the Dallas Cowboys and the following week against the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers. The team emerged as the victor in both of those games, which is why head coach Ron Rivera believes Washington is in position to do so again.

"The one thing I will say, the other two games we've been on the stage...our guys came out and played well and had fun," Rivera said. "That's the biggest thing. We've got to get back to having a little bit of fun. The truth of the matter is we're playing with house money. That's the best part about it."

Washington has a history of performing poorly in primetime games. It is 2-16 in Monday Night Football games dating back to 2008 and 3-7 on Thursday Night Football since 2006. The team has fared better on Sunday Night Football, but it still has just a 7-8 record in the past 14 years.

Washington was only granted one primetime game -- the Thanksgiving game against the Cowboys -- and it responded by blowing out the Cowboys, 41-16. The Steelers game was not in primetime, but it was played on a Monday evening. Despite Pittsburgh being heavily favored, Washington pulled out a 23-16 upset.

The main reason for that success, Rivera said, is because the team had fun in each matchup. That's what the players need to recapture with the postseason on the line.

"Take the pressure off ourselves and go have fun. That's the truth of the matter," he said. "We control our own destiny. It's in our hands. All the cliches. We're going to have fun with it and go with it."

The game will certainly be exciting for the young Washington team, but it will still need to execute its game plan with consistency. That was a common theme in both games against the Cowboys and Steelers, which is why Rivera is hopeful that Alex Smith will be able to return after missing the past two games with a calf injury.

"When you look at his play and how consistent he's been, he's been really good," Rivera said. "I think it shows when he distributes the ball the way he does as well. It's one of those things that we've got to be able to get that from the quarterback position. That is, protect the football and be consistent."

Rivera said Smith is able to help control the game, manage the tempo and protect the football, which are things Washington has not done the past two weeks. The offense has trailed for the entirety of each game and committed six turnovers. Having Smith back would help control the pace of the offense.

"I think that's one of the important things that you have to have is that the ball has to be shared to all the different receivers, to the running backs," Rivera said. "When those guys are touching the ball and different guys are touching the ball, I think it helps the offense."

Rivera pointed out that nobody expected Washington to be in position to capture the NFC East at the start of the season. But since Week 5, that has been Rivera's goal, and sure enough, Washington finds itself in that situation with the rest of the NFL watching in Week 17. It will be a chance for the team to show off the work it has put into building a sustainable, winning culture.

"These guys deserve it after the year we've been through, the last few years. I think our guys appreciate that."

Check out photos of the Washington Football Team during its Week 16 matchup against the Carolina Panthers. (Photos courtesy of Amanda Bowen/NFL, Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team and Elijah Griffin Sr./Washington Football)

QUICK HITS

-- Antonio Gibson's "excellent" return: Washington's backfield has been missing running back Antonio Gibson ever since he suffered a toe injury against the Steelers. J.D. McKissic has been a fine replacement for the rookie, but Gibson has been Wasington's best rushing threat. After two weeks of recovery, Gibson made his return and rushed for 61 yards on 10 carries. His performance, Rivera said, was "excellent."

"He still wasn't completely there in terms of being 100 percent, but what we got from him was pretty doggone good," Rivera said. "There was one play he caught a swing pass, and he had to spin. I was wondering if the reason he spun was because he couldn't just take that toe and jam it into the ground and go. But he came out pretty good. I actually saw him coming in today, and it looked like he didn't have too much of a limp to that walk. I'm pretty optimistic that he didn't do anything extra to that toe. Plus, he's got a couple extra days before he does anything Wednesday."

-- Rivera has confidence in Taylor Heinicke: Backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke entered the game in the fourth quarter against the Panthers and effectively moved the ball down the field on drives of 70 and 91 yards. Heinicke completed 12 of his 19 passes for 137 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown to McKissic. Rivera said Heinicke moved well and made good decisions, which has convinced him that Heinicke could have a similar performance for a full game if necessary.

"I thought he showed the patience he needed to. I thought his rhythm in the passing game after his first throw, which was wide right, the rest of them seemed they were where they needed to be. It looked like he was going through his progressions very nicely, very quickly, so his timing was good. Then, he pulled it down and ran a couple times. Again, I thought there were a lot of positives to it. Do I think he could handle it? Absolutely. I think he showed what I was hoping to see when he got his opportunity. It wasn't too big."

-- Washington felt Terry McLaurin's absence Sunday: Not only was Washington without Smith for the second week, it also did not have its best wide receiver in Terry McLaurin. McLaurin has been a more than reliable player for Washington's offense all year, and he brings a skillset defenses have to honor. Opponents have to account for McLaurin's potential as a vertical threat, and with him gone, the Panthers packed their coverage and jumped underneath routes. That can make running the ball a challenge, Rivera said, particularly in the second half when Washington was trying to come back from a 20-3 deficit.

"But when you have Terry out there with his speed and his ability to get vertical very quickly, you have to honor it," Rivera said. "You can't add safeties into the run game consistently. You can't drop these guys in to play the underneath coverage consistently knowing there's that vertical threat. That's what you miss when you don't have a Terry McLaurin out there."

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