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PAYNE: Opener gives fans a reason to believe in Rivera, WFT

PAYNE: Opener gives fans a reason to believe in Rivera, WFT

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It would be easy to get carried away on the wave of euphoria that Washington football fans were feeling following Sunday’s season-opening 27-17 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles at FedEx Field.

For the unfamiliar, Philadelphia stormed out to a 17-0 lead midway through the second quarter and looked to be firmly in command. The concerns of media and fans alike—that Washington’s offense is short on playmakers and its defense will be hampered once again by an inadequate secondary—appeared to be well-founded at that point.

Then, as if at the flip of a switch, the no-name secondary and sputtering offense both came together with a ferocious defensive front. That synergy produced 27 unanswered points, and Washington won its first opener since 2014 and claimed its first victory over the Eagles since Week 14 of the 2016 campaign.

The furious rally, which came against a Philadelphia squad that’s once again considered a bona fide playoff contender in the NFC, lit a fire under a fanbase that’s spent the better part of three decades searching for something, anything, to get excited about. And while many, myself included, would caution them to curb their enthusiasm to some degree, Sunday’s win was undoubtedly significant in many ways.

The obvious takeaway for most observers was the perseverance Washington showed after going down by three scores so early in the contest.

When Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz connected with tight end Dallas Goedert for a 34-yard touchdown pass with seven minutes left in the first half, it would’ve been easy for Washington to let all the air drain out of the proverbial balloon, so to speak. In fact, if you’ve followed this franchise at all in recent years, then you’ve seen that exact scenario play out on countless occasions.

Instead of folding, Washington’s resolve only strengthened, leading to its largest comeback in the 86-year history of the series between the two NFC East rivals.

One would be remiss, however, if they talked about Washington’s resilience without mentioning the role its head coach played in that.

Since being hired on Dec. 31, Ron Rivera has been forced to navigate one roadblock after another, many of which were the result of owner Dan Snyder and former team president Bruce Allen’s sins. He’s navigated all of them—from the storm surrounding the franchise’s name change to parting ways with embattled veteran players like Trent Williams, Jordan Reed and Josh Norman—with professionalism and grace.

Oh, and let’s not forget that Rivera is currently battling cancer, which he began chemotherapy and radiation treatments for just last week.

Point being, if you don’t think Washington’s spirited rally was due, in large part, to the man calling the shots on the sidelines, then think again.

A former Super Bowl champion while playing linebacker for the 1985 Chicago Bears’ “Monsters of the Midway” defense, Rivera had to be pleased by what he saw from his defense on Sunday.

Washington sacked Wentz eight times and forced him into three turnovers. The first two came on interceptions by Fabian Moreau and Jimmy Moreland, both of which led directly to touchdowns that trimmed Philadelphia’s advantage to 17-14 midway through the third period.

The last turnover, which came when Wentz coughed up the ball while being pursued by rookie defensive end Chase Young and defensive tackle Daron Payne, enabled Washington to ice the victory by running much of the final 3:25 off the clock.

Young proved up to the challenge in his NFL debut. The No. 2 overall pick in last April’s draft recorded 1.5 sacks to go along with the forced fumble.

The fumble was recovered by veteran defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, who led the Washington defense with two sacks—the last of which vaulted him past Dexter Manley and into first place as the franchise’s all-time sacks leader.

Moreau and Moreland’s contributions were a promising sign for the Washington secondary, which was missing free-agent pickup Kendall Fuller due to an ailing knee. Together with another free-agent acquisition, former Eagle Ronald Darby, the cornerbacks clamped down on Wentz. After starting the day 12-of-15 for 176 yards and two scores, Wentz limped to a 12-for-27, 94-yard effort down the stretch, including the two picks.

On the other side of the ball, Washington was far from spectacular, but did just enough to win the game. Second-year signal-caller Dwayne Haskins completed 17 of 31 attempts for 178 yards and a touchdown, while free-agent addition Peyton Barber ran for a pair of short scores.

Most important of all, though, Haskins and Co. didn’t turn the ball over. They moved in fits and starts, racking up 239 yards of offense (Philadelphia finished with 265 by comparison) but, as mentioned previously, got points off two of the three turnovers the defense forced.

That formula alone could earn Washington a handful of victories in the dog-eat-dog NFC East, where nine or 10 wins is often enough to finish atop the heap.

However, all of that doesn’t mean there aren’t glaring weaknesses that were exposed Sunday.

Much of Wentz’s success through the air came in the middle of the field (Goedert caught eight passes for 101 yards) against a Washington unit that was without veteran linebacker Thomas Davis and was also relying on largely unproven third-year man Troy Apke at free safety.

Apke was beaten on multiple occasions—including Goedert’s 34-yard touchdown reception—and it’s certainly possible to imagine his playing time being dramatically limited once Fuller, a corner/safety hybrid, is ready to go.

Offensively, there will undoubtedly come a time where Haskins has to win a game for Washington with his arm. No one doubts how big that arm is, but the Ohio State product still displayed a tendency to force balls into double and triple coverage in Sunday’s matchup.

Washington’s offensive line, which lost longtime stalwart Williams in an April trade to San Francisco, surrendered three sacks and didn’t open many holes for the running backs. Despite his two scores, Barber managed just 29 yards rushing on 17 attempts, while highly-regarded rookie Antonio Gibson led the team with 36 yards on nine carries.

All of those things are a work in progress, but the things that aren’t are Rivera and his team’s moxie, as well as the enormous talent of Young, Kerrigan and Co. on the defensive front.

Those are two things that could very well make this season an entertaining one for the Washington fans who have withstood years of futility in the hope that the franchise will one day return to its former glory.

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