The Washington Commanders' defense lined up at their own 4-yard line with the game in the balance. It is a situation they have been in before.
Against the Chicago Bears, Washington was tasked with keeping Justin Fields out of the end zone on fourth down. It required a game-saving tackle at the goal line, but it walked off of Soldier Field with a 12-7 win. Against the Green Bay Packers, it stopped a lateral-heavy final play that would have resulted in a disastrous loss.
Now, Washington needed to stop the Atlanta Falcons with about a minute left. Once again, the defense did its job.
Marcus Mariota's pass was tipped by Daron Payne and corralled by Kendall Fuller in the end zone, securing a 19-13 win over the road team -- its third straight and sixth in the last seven games.
Like the weather, the game itself was sloppy and riddled with mistakes from both sides. Fortunately for the Commanders (7-5), who have now equaled their win total from the last two seasons, they know how to play and win in games like that, and just as they have done in previous matchups, they came up with pivotal plays when they could not afford anything less.
Washington's ground game, which seems to be more and more prevalent in the game plan each week, came through again. In fact, the Commanders accomplished something that had only been done three times this season: outrush the Falcons, who came into the game with the second-most rushing yards and attempts in the NFL.
Brian Robinson, who amassed a career-high 18 carries for 105 yards, led a rushing attack that totaled 176 yards on 37 carries. This was achieved despite Atlanta routinely stacking the line of scrimmage with five defensive linemen and a staunch dedication to stopping what has become a key part of Washington's identity.
The Falcons had their share of success on the ground with 167 yards, but the Commanders' defense did enough to give Mariota problems. Outside of the interception, they stuffed Atlanta's fourth-down attempt in the final minute of the first half, and two of their drives in the second half resulted in three-and-outs.
That was not the case, however, on the opening drive of the game, as the Falcons zoomed down the field on an 11-play, 46-yard drive that took nearly seven minutes off the clock that resulted in a 47-yard field goal.
Washington was quick to answer, though, and it got in the end zone on its opening drive for the first time since Week 1 with a 14-yard touchdown where Robinson bowled over a defensive back to get in the end zone.
The Commanders came into the game with one of the better run defenses in the league, averaging just 103 yards allowed per contest. However, there were several plays where the unit was gashed on explosive runs from the Atlanta offense. The Falcons got to work again at the start of the second quarter, when they ran the ball eight times to get themselves down to the Commanders' 4-yard line. Mariota found an open MyCole Pruitt in the end zone to give Atlanta a 10-7 lead.
Washington responded with a field goal, and after the two teams exchanged the ball with a turnover on downs and a pick from Heinicke, the score was 10-10 at the half.
A three-and-out from Atlanta led to Washington setting up shop at their own 40, and in a show of just how dedicated the team is to its ground game, it ran the ball on nine of 11 plays, setting up Taylor Heinicke to deliver his second touchdown pass of the day, this time to John Bates to retake the lead.
What followed was a pair of field goals and three-and-outs, including a series in which Washington could only take two minutes off the clock with a six-point lead. That led to Atlanta having one final shot to win the game.
It was about an inch away from being over. Washington failed to touch Mariota after he fell to one knee in the backfield, and the quarterback made the defense pay with a pass to Olamide Zaccheaus, who turned the completion into a 45-yard gain. Cordarrelle Patterson, who had been quiet for long stretches in the previous three quarters, came alive with two runs that put Atlanta inside the 10-yard line.
Things got even worse from there, as an offside penalty put Atlanta at the Commanders' 2-yard line. But the Commanders did what they have done all season, and that is make stops inside their own 5-yard line. Montez Sweat took down Mariota for a two-yard loss, and Payne, who had not had a deflected pass all season, got his hand up and altered the trajectory of Mariota's ensuing passing, leading to the heroics from Fuller.
Washington survived once again, but the players will leave FedEx Field happy with the outcome. After all, they have come back from a 1-4 start to the season and have placed themselves in the playoff discussion with five games left, so who could blame them?
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