Washington vaults into first place in NFC East

  • Covered the Redskins for the Washington Examiner and other media outlets since 1994
  • Authored or co-authored three books on the Redskins and one on the Cleveland Browns

The Washington Football team dropped its former name, had a coach who battled cancer and benched its quarterback after four weeks. They weren’t anyone’s pick to contend in the NFC East; they were more likely to compete for a top-five draft pick.

That’s why it’s surprising to see where they are now: In control of the NFC East.

Washington (6-7) took over sole possession of the division with a 23-15 win over the San Francisco 49ers, using defensive touchdowns. The defense stopped the 49ers’ last drive with a stop on fourth-and-12 just inside midfield. They needed to excel as the offense struggled all day and lost quarterback Alex Smith for the second half because of a calf injury. There’s no word yet on his status for next week.

Because of restrictions in California, the game was played in Glendale, Arizona. With three games remaining, Washington has a one-game lead over the New York Giants (5-8). It needs to finish ahead of the Giants because New York swept the season series.

Washington has won four consecutive games and two of their three remaining opponents (Carolina and Philadelphia) have losing records. They’re now set up to do what few would have expected a few weeks ago: Give the NFC East a division champion with a winning record.

Washington has reached this point despite its coach, Ron Rivera, needing to undergo seven weeks of cancer treatments. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins was benched after four games and his replacement, Kyle Allen, suffered a season-ending ankle injury four games later. That left them with Smith, who had not played since Nov. 18, 2018 because of his broken fibula and tibia that required 17 surgeries.

Despite it all, Washington remained strong thanks to a defense that showed Sunday why it has a promising future. Its young ends, Montez Sweat and Chase Young, have played well all season.

But Young dominated Sunday. In the first half he forced a fumble that led to a field goal and, on the ensuing possession, returned a fumble 47 yards for a touchdown. He deflected one pass and batted down a key third-down pass in the fourth quarter.

In fact, Washington did not score an offensive touchdown Sunday. Rookie safety Kam Curl, a seventh-round pick, returned a third quarter interception 47 yards for a touchdown.

Washington needed the defensive scores because its offense couldn’t generate much of an attack. It was missing running back Antonio Gibson and then Smith only played in the first half because of a calf injury. Smith completed eight-of-19 passes for 57 yards.

Haskins replaced him and helped lead a field goal drive on his first possession, but that was all they could muster. Haskins nearly threw an interception late in the game, but the call was overturned on replay. Haskins completed seven-of-12 passes for 51 yards.

But this was a game about the defense. The front, with five first-round picks, pressured Mullens most of the day. That group is the reason Washington was optimistic about its future — beyond 2020. But it’s also why Washington is in position to capture a division title, one year a

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