Last Sunday’s win against the Buccaneers will go down as one of the finest of coach Ron Rivera’s tenure in Washington.
But whether it will go down as a turning point in an otherwise forgettable season depends on what happens Sunday in Carolina.
Rivera and the Football Team have experience with launching pads — a win against the unbeaten Steelers last year led to a late-season run to a division title, and Rivera’s late-season success is well-documented — when he coached the Panthers, they were the NFL’s fifth-best team in December.
“I think the benefit of playing a team like Tampa Bay is it’s a nice measuring stick,” receiver Terry McLaurin said. “You see what you’re capable of if you put in the time throughout the week. If you execute on Sundays, if you play four quarters, you have a chance to win the game, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Sunday’s game transformed from sleepy to significant in a hurry.
For quarterback Taylor Heinicke, what initially appeared to be one of his final starts instead bought him more time under center when he led a 10-minute drive to put away the Bucs.
He’s had the trust of Rivera all along. Riverar said Heinicke continues to get the nod in part because the team has faith in him.
“When you talk to the guys about him, one of the things they always say is when we get the ball in certain situations, we feel like we have a chance,” the coach said. “That’s all part of it is that if your teammates have confidence that you can get something done, that really helps.”
Rivera made a stir earlier this season suggesting Heinicke should be more of a “game manager,” but that brought success against the Bucs, and it will keep him as QB1 if he continues to produce big plays without turnovers.
It’s also a big game for Rivera, who will match wits with Cam Newton, his longtime quarterback.
The return to Charlotte, N.C., was always going to be memorable, but as defensive tackle Jonathan Allen noted, the caliber of the game makes it hard to focus on that too much.
“I mean, if we’re being honest, I’m sure it is,” he said of the increased emotions. “But at the end of the day, to get to where we want to get to as a team and as an organization, it’s the next game on our schedule.”
For Carolina (5-5), it’s the type of win it must have if it hopes to be a playoff team this year.
The Panthers have Newton and Christian McCaffrey, but Washington counters with McLaurin, who made the clutch third-down catch that essentially sealed victory against Tampa.
“I think that was probably one of my favorite plays I’ve been in the NFL when you consider the circumstances of the game,” McLaurin said. “To be trusted in that in that situation ... you make the play and you take a hit like that and you don’t let them see you down — you get up and you hype the crowd up.
“That was a fun moment for myself and my teammates, and to come over and get the pats on the back, and not because you made the play, but just what that meant to everybody to see you do that, you know what I mean?”
McLaurin said he’s worked hard to bounce back and play just seven days after taking big hits like that, noting that he learned a lot from Ryan Kerrigan when he was with Washington.
“I’m proud of where I am right now, I truly am,” he said. “I think it’s just the deposit that I slowly put into my body day in, day out, lifting hard in the weight room during the season so you’re maintaining and still gaining muscle.
“I know it’s going to be physical, but at the same time, I’m never afraid to go over the middle and put my nose in there, catching the ball, blocking and things like that. Because being a leader and the type of player that I am, I feel like that’s extremely important, and that’s very infectious to the other guys around you.”