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From the moment Ron Rivera stepped up to the podium for the first time as the Washington Football Team's head coach more than a year ago, he spoke of a vision for where he wanted to take the franchise.

He explained how he wanted to return a team that finished the 2019 season with a 3-13 record to its days of being perennial playoff contenders. He wanted to help Washington reach the same tier as some of the modern powerhouse organizations like Kansas City, Seattle and Green Bay, and he wanted to do that by building on the potential of its young, talented roster.

Rivera would say there is still a long way to go before that vision is realized, but winning the NFC East in his first year is a good way to start.

After starting the 2020 season 1-5, Washington claimed the division title for the first time since 2015 with a win over the Philadelphia Eagles. The team had to endure double-digit losses, injuries at key positions, multiple quarterback changes and Rivera battling cancer during the season. And yet, Washington never believed the division crown was out of reach, and the players showed resilience throughout one wave of adversity after the other.

Rivera showed confidence in the players he had at his disposal, and that faith has finally paid off. Take a look back at how the head coach turned potential into a playoff berth.

'Feeling It Out'

New head coaches are already at a disadvantage in their first season. Add in a virtual offseason, modified training camp and no preseason games -- and on top of that a cancer diagnosis -- and the amount head coach Ron Rivera was supposed to overcome seemed, well, insurmountable.

In some ways, the regular season opener provided false hope. By erasing a 17-point deficit to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles, some thought that Rivera's first year in Washington would go smoother than expected.

Dwayne Haskins Jr. would continue to develop as the quarterback of the future -- with Terry McLaurin as his No. 1 option -- and the pass-rush, which racked up eight sacks, would wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. With a win over the defending NFC East champions, why couldn't Washington potentially contend for the division?

Quickly, reality set in. Giveaways and big plays doomed Washington in its 30-15 loss in Arizona, while turnovers against the Cleveland Browns overshadowed an otherwise solid offensive performance and resulted in a 34-20 defeat. Defensively, Washington could not contain Cardinals' dual-threat quarterback Kyler Murray or the Browns' two-headed rushing attack of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

Washington nearly matched the Baltimore Ravens in total yardage in Week 4, but that stat proved meaningless in a game the Ravens controlled from the onset. Quarterback Lamar Jackson did seemingly whatever he wanted against Jack Del Rio's defense, gliding for a 50-yard touchdown while throwing for two more. The result was a 31-17 loss, Washington's third straight by at least two touchdowns.

Despite Washington sitting at 1-3, with its win over the Eagles feeling like a distant memory, Rivera was oddly encouraged. He believed Washington had "some pretty good pieces in place" and thought marked improvement was imminent in struggling NFC East.

That's the main reason he replaced Haskins with Kyle Allen a quarter of the way through the season. With someone who had been in offensive coordinator Scott Turner's system -- the two worked together in Carolina the past two seasons -- Rivera believed Washington could pick up a few wins during the easier portion of their schedule.

"I just felt that with the pieces we had -- why not us?" Rivera said earlier this month. "I looked at it and, to be honest with you, there were six games that I saw coming up. I just felt if we could win three of those six and then see what happens after that, we could be in a pretty good place. That's why I did what I did. I just looked at it and felt it. I was drawing on my experience of having played and coached in this league for 30 years. I just felt there was an opportunity and I wanted to take it and see what happens."

Rivera received a lot of pushback for his decision to bench Haskins. In what many saw a rebuilding year, why would he prevent the 2019 first-round pick from receiving the reps that would prove whether or not he could be the quarterback of the future? And having already pointed to long-term growth as the reason not to use timeouts late in games Washington was not completely out of, was he sending mixed signals by publicly declaring his desire to win the division?

From an outside perspective, Riverboat Ron took a gamble. He believed he could continue developing a young team while fighting for a historically bad division -- similar to what he did with the Carolina Panthers in 2014.

And while it took some time for that vision to come into focus, eventually everyone saw Washington's potential through Rivera's lens.

"I'll be honest with you, that's what the goal has been since about Week 5," Rivera said about making the postseason. "The first four were about seeing what we were as a football team, kind of feeling it out. But then looking at it...Week 5 was really where I thought, 'Hey, you know what, we have a shot for the playoffs because of the way the division is. Nobody has started out 3-1 or 4-0.' I just thought, 'Wow. There's a chance.'"

Learning To Win

There was little time to celebrate Cam Sims' biggest NFL moment against the New York Giants in Week 6. Sims' 22-yard touchdown brought Washington within one in the final seconds, but Rivera wanted to leave MetLife Stadium with a win right then and there.

"The only way to learn to win is to play to win," Rivera said after the failed two-point conversion in a 20-19 loss. "That's what I want those guys to understand; that's the mentality."

Many questioned the decision, especially because Washington's offense just scored and its defense shut down the Giants for most of the second half. If it went to overtime, it could have avoided its second straight 1-5 start to the season. The players, though, stood behind their coach. They loved his attacking mindset and his belief in this inexperienced unit. Eventually, those plays would end up working in their favor.

"What he's trying to do here, and I totally understand it and I love that he's doing it, is we're trying to create a winning mentality," Allen said after the game.

Washington came out a week later and dominated the Dallas Cowboys. When its offense failed to convert a fourth down at the goal line, the defense immediately responded by recording a safety. Then the offense built on that momentum with a touchdown drive, giving Washington all the points it would need in a 25-3 rout.

"We've set the bar, we've set the standard," McLaurin said. "We know what that looks like now. We know every week is not going to be perfect, but we have weeks like this against good football teams and it's in your division. It gives you a lot of confidence as a football team, and we just have to build on that going forward going into this bye week."

Another disappointing loss to the Giants followed, but there were some encouraging signs, none bigger than the play of veteran quarterback Alex Smith. In just his second appearance since his grotesque injury, Smith nearly led a double-digit comeback in place of the injured Allen. His biggest mistakes were a pair of late interceptions, and those only occurred because Smith was trying to make a play, Rivera said.

With Allen out for the year with his own significant leg injury, Washington would be forced to turn to Smith, who looked like his former self despite the costly giveaways. And even at 2-7, Rivera felt confident with Smith under center. A proven winner and elite game manager, paired with a defense that was finally starting to gel, appeared to be just what Washington needed to climb back into the NFC East hunt.

Finding Their Identity

Washington faced a lukewarm, swirling wash of emotions at Ford Field after its game against the Detroit Lions.

For the first time in nearly two years to the day since his life-threatening injury, Smith was on the field as Washington's starting quarterback. Not only did he throw for 300-plus yards in back-to-back games for the first time in his career, but the offense also shattered its season-high production that had been set the week before with 464 yards. By tying the game, 27-27, with 16 second left in the fourth quarter, the team proved once again that it was making progress.

And yet, problems lingered; the offense took too much time to gain traction, while the defense continued to give up big plays, both of which contributed to a 17-3 halftime deficit. All the joy from Dustin Hopkins tying the game evaporated as Matt Prater nailed a game-winning 59-yard field goal. Rivera said the team played well enough to win, but it also left nine points on the field, and missed opportunities do not show up on the scoreboard.

"So, sometimes I tell the guys, 'You can't play against two teams on Sunday: them and us,'" Rivera said. "Sometimes we do ourselves in by some of the mistakes we make."

Still, Rivera always viewed his first season in Washington from a broader perspective, and the big picture showed the team's record was close to being much better. Including the Lions game, Washington's last three losses came by a combined seven points. No other team was running away with the NFC East, either, and the next two games against the Cincinnati Bengals and Dallas Cowboys gave Washington the chance to double its win total and potentially take a lead in the struggling division.

On the surface, it looked as if the Bengals and Cowboys would be some of the easier games on the schedule. The Bengals had struggled almost as much as Washington in quarterback Joe Burrow's rookie season, while the Cowboys were a shell of themselves with Dak Prescott out for the year. However, the Bengals were two weeks removed from upsetting the Tennessee Titans, and the Cowboys had just won a battle against the Minnesota Vikings.

The reality was that Washington needed to take both opponents seriously, which is why having a player like Smith as the starting quarterback came in handy.

"You see those things that he does getting guys lined up or getting guys in the right position," Rivera said. "That's important, that really is. It helps these young guys, especially these young guys, because now they're learning from a guy that's done it before."

The offense was not clicking as much as it was against the Lions, but it was still effective as it put up 325 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-9 win. The blowout came four days later on Thanksgiving when Washington turned a 17-13 lead into a 41-16 drubbing that briefly gave it first place in the division.

Although Smith threw for fewer yards in those two victories (315) than he did in either of Washington's previous losses, he was offering the stability Rivera wanted out of the 36-year-old veteran. But Washington's true growth came from the players who had tempted Rivera to become the team's head coach. That was apparent against the Cowboys; Antonio Gibson rushed for 115 yards and three touchdowns, while Montez Sweat sealed the game with an interception returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

"I really think we're finding our identity and getting better as the weeks have gone on," Smith said. "Wins obviously only help to encourage that and fuel that. I think it's important to kind of keep that going week-to-week and keep developing as the weeks go on."

That talent, combined with a resiliency developed over the course of the season, ensured that Washington was going to be competitive, particularly in the second half of games. That was a sobering revelation to the then undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers, who had taken a 14-3 halftime lead. Washington marched 82 yards downfield on the opening drive of the third quarter and scored a one-yard touchdown to make the score 14-10. It went on to outscore the Steelers, 13-3, and essentially sealed the game with an interception by Jon Bostic.

The win accomplished two things: it allowed Washington to keep pace in the division, and it showed that after starting the year 2-7, the team could compete with anyone.

"We have been down for such a long time and we're trying to rebuild ourselves and build up," Rivera said. "This is something that we can build off of, and [I'm] just really proud of the way they played."

What's Important Over What's Interesting

There have been plenty of interesting headlines surrounding Washington for the past three weeks.

It was interesting that the team followed up its victory over the undefeated Steelers with a win over the San Francisco 49ers -- last year's NFC representative in Super Bowl LIV, particularly since an injured Smith was replaced by Haskins and Washington's only touchdowns in the 23-15 game were scored by defensive rookies Chase Young and Kamren Curl.

It was interesting that Washington headed into its game against the Seattle Seahawks without its starting quarterback and Gibson, who had been nursing a toe injury since exiting the Steelers game in the first quarter. Its banged-up offense was still almost enough to knock off the Seahawks, but despite a valiant fourth-quarter comeback, Washington suffered its first loss in more than a month.

The defeat did not hurt Washington's playoff chances, though, and with the Giants and Eagles both losing their respective games, that created perhaps one of the most interesting twists of the season: if Washington beat the Carolina Panthers, Rivera's former team, and the Giants lost again, Washington would the NFC East for the first time since 2015.

However, Rivera has preached about focusing on what is important over what is interesting, and that included the potential for revenge over the franchise that relieved Rivera of his duties last season.

"This organization right now is more important than my personal situation," Rivera said. "I mean that because we have 53 guys downstairs and a group of coaches that we want to get into the playoffs. They want to get into the playoffs, and we want to do it for them and for us. We have to focus in on the game."

Washington found itself in another double-digit hole, and in many ways it was similar to what happened against the Seahawks. The defense made plays that kept the team in the game and the offense came alive in the fourth quarter with help from backup Taylor Heinicke, but a failed onside kick recovery spoiled a comeback attempt, resulting in a 20-13 defeat.

The loss, combined with the Giants also losing to the Ravens, created a win-and-in scenario for Washington, and shortly after the Panthers game it was announced the regular season finale against the Eagles would be on NBC's Sunday Night Football with Smith, McLaurin and Gibson all returning to action. That created a massive spotlight on Washington, but since Rivera had seen his team perform on Thanksgiving and against the Steelers, he believed it would rise to the occasion.

"We're on the stage now. The one thing I will say, the first other two games we've been on the stage...our guys came out and played well and had fun. 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."

What has been more important to take away from Washington's past four games is its fight. Its defense found a way to keep and maintain a lead when its offense was not as productive against the 49ers, while the unit kept the team in the game against the Seahawks and Panthers. When it seemed like those games would get away from Washington, it clawed its way back with big plays on both sides of the ball.

And against the Eagles, it showed that it can put aside the glitz and attention that came with a national spotlight and defeat last year's division champs, just as it did to start the year, to show how far the franchise has come from holding a top 2 draft pick eight months ago.

What started as a rebuilding year has yielded Washington's first postseason birth in five seasons. Now, it intends to survive and advance for as long as possible.

"I believe we can make some noise. I really do," Rivera said. "I like the personnel we have. A lot of these guys have learned and grown into what we do. A lot of them are buying into what we do. Winning helps that. If you can win the division, all of a sudden, guys will go: 'Wow. Coach was right about us.'"

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