When the Washington Football Team takes the field this afternoon in Glendale, Arizona, they will do so as one of the hottest teams in the league.
Which is funny, because outside of the DMV, they are largely discredited and overlooked. This could change Sunday as the team takes on the San Francisco 49ers (5-7), who by all accounts are darlings of the NFL despite a sub .500 record.
A win today would be the fourth in a row for Washington, and elevate their record to 6-7. At worst, they would be tied for the division lead, and square in the hunt of a Wild Card chase.
This game holds additional importance due to the fact that San Francisco is right there with the team in terms of jockeying for a playoff spot, and a head-to-head win is the first tie-breaker. So, this game is important for the Burgundy and Gold.
Can Washington make a statement, and put the league on notice? They sure can, as long as they maintain their winning formula.
Take Care of the Ball
San Francisco’s record is somewhat of an illusion. This team has been ravaged by injuries and is almost unrecognizable to the team that made it to the Super Bowl Last season. In addition to Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle being out for most of the year, their star-studded defense has also taken a hit.
Staples such as Dee Ford, Nick Bosa, Ziggy Ansah and Solomon Thomas are all on injured-reserve, leaving one of the most vaunted defenses in the NFL wounded. However, the defense is still potent due to their coaching. Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh is one of the most sought after assistant coaches in the league, and will likely be leading his own team next season. He has taken a rag-tag group of players and had them perform at a respectful level.
Heading into today’s matchup, the 49ers are sixth in the NFL in overall defense. They are 13th in terms of interceptions, and have given up the fourth fewest rushing touchdowns in the league.
This will pose a problem for a Washington offense that struggles to score. The team must rely on Alex Smith’s steady presence and more of an aerial assault if they want to win. Being down Antonio Gibson won’t help the team either.
Attack Nick Mullens
If Head Coach Kyle Shanahan is wise (which he is), he will likely keep the ball out of quarterback Nick Mullens’ hands. The 49ers QB has at least one interception in six of the eight games he has played in this season. He also gets sacked on about 5% of his drop-backs.
Shanahan will attempt to get the 49ers run game going. The team recently brought back Raheem Mostert off of IR, and has a three-headed attack with Jerrick McKinnon and Jeff Wilson also capable. If the 49ers can get push on the line, and bully Washington’s defensive front, it will be a long day for Jack Del Rio’s group.
Washington needs to stop the run and make Mullens beat them. This game will likely come down to who wins the turnover battle, and Mullens is ripe for the picking (pun intended).
Bringing it On Home
Considering all of this, a win would do wonders for Washington and the team psyche. A four-game winning streak would put the NFL on notice and would provide an appealing match-up against the Seattle Seahawks next week in Landover. Seattle stands at 8-4, but has been reeling over the last month. Washington’s other two opponents, the Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles, are combined for a record of 7-16-1.
Therefore, this game is extremely important. Win today and the team has a very real opportunity to make the playoffs, either through a Wild Card Birth or a Division Crown. A loss next week against the Seahawks would hurt, but would not be devastating. The team could still realistically end the season 8-8, which would be a huge accomplishment considering everything the team has gone through this year.
It starts today versus San Francisco. Put the league on notice and show them that Washington is building something special in DC.