How good are the Commanders? They keep winning, but questions remain

The Washington Commanders have done what they needed to lately. They gave up big plays, but also made them at the right time. They sputtered on offense, until they needed a big drive.

More importantly, they’ve also done this: win games, aesthetics be damned.

Yet the question remains as they enter a tough stretch: How good are they?

They have won three consecutive games by a combined eight points. They’re just as close to being 2-6 as they are to being 5-3. Several yards have made the difference.

Still, they’re 4-4 and have a shot at the third wild-card spot. Of course, nine teams are either 4-4 or 3-5 in the NFC, so all those teams have a shot as well.

Washington has yet to beat a team with a winning record -- either at the time or currently. Of their final nine games, only two teams -- Houston and Cleveland -- have a losing record. Everyone else is at .500 or better. They have four games remaining in the NFC East, suddenly the best division in the NFL as the other three teams have a combined 19-4 record.

The Commanders have won games versus lesser teams -- albeit two of them on the road -- while seeking the consistency needed to beat the better ones. Considering they play the 6-1 Minnesota Vikings (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Fox) and the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles in the next two weeks, they need that consistency immediately.

“Oh absolutely. And we'll have to match those guys,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said of the upcoming challenges. “That's one of the things that we're going to find out is can we match a team like that? Can we stand toe to toe? That'll be an interesting thing to watch.”

That’s one reason Rivera appeared frustrated at times in his postgame news conference after a last-second 17-16 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. He saw some big plays occur because defenders got themselves out of position.

“I just think at this point, at the midway point of the season,” Rivera said, “you would like to think that we're going to do what we're asked.

“We can feed off of the energy [of the streak]. But the truth is against other opponents, you can't constantly miss the opportunities, and like I said, you have to do what you should do, what you're supposed to do.”

There’s a yeah-but response for positive trends.

Yeah, their defense has played well: In the last six weeks, Washington ranks fifth in yards per game, third downs and rushing yards per carry allowed. The Commanders are seventh in red zone defense and eighth in points allowed during this stretch. Tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne have played well -- their 19 combined tackles for a loss are the most for any defensive line tandem in the NFL.

But their last four games have come against teams ranked 22nd or lower in scoring offense. Even knowing the defense kept the team close in losses to Philadelphia and the Dallas Cowboys, it's fair to wonder not if they're good, but, rather, how good?

“I wouldn’t say ‘right where we want to be,’ but we’re definitely getting closer to where we want to be,” Allen said. “We still have to make some improvements on consistency, not giving up cheap stuff.”

Washington has allowed 35 plays of 20 yards or more, sixth most in the NFL. During the streak, that ranking hasn’t changed much as the Commanders are eighth with 12 such plays. But in the last three games, they rank tied for second with only two touchdowns allowed in the red zone and have caused two turnovers.

“We’ve still got things to work on,” Washington safety Bobby McCain said. “If you just do your job, it’ll all play out.”

Yeah, the offense has rallied the past two games, both started by backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke for the injured Carson Wentz. Heinicke led the fourth-quarter comeback Sunday. He also led three consecutive scoring drives in the second half against the Green Bay Packers the previous week. Heinicke lacks size and a big arm, but he sparks the team with his energized play and timely throws.

And running back Antonio Gibson, doubling as a kick returner, has turned into an all-around threat with a combined 272 all-purpose yards the past two games. Receiver Terry McLaurin has been a bigger threat, with 11 catches on 17 targets the past two games -- with key catches in the past two wins.

But, during the streak, Washington ranks 20th or lower in yards per game, points, yards per carry and third downs.

Then again, they keep winning which, ultimately, is the goal.

“It's the intangible things that really keep this team together,” Heinicke said. “A lot of the wins aren't pretty, but it's a win, nonetheless. We're just a bunch of guys out there working hard and trying to play our best ball, and we don't give up on each other. I love this team. It's my favorite team I've been on, favorite locker room I've been with, and I can't say enough good things about all the guys in there.”

They’re winning despite not playing their best and should be getting key players back soon. Defensive end Chase Young, who is recovering from a knee injury, practiced Wednesday for the first time in almost a year and could play against the Eagles.

They’ve won without rookie receiver Jahan Dotson, who caught four touchdown passes in his first four games but hasn’t played since because of a left hamstring injury. It’s uncertain when he’ll return after re-aggravating it in practice two weeks ago.

And they need the special teams to keep covering as it has: They rank third in net punts and second in opposing kick return yardage.

Still, Washington knows it must improve. The Commanders’ offensive line has been too much in flux because of injuries -- right tackle Sam Cosmi remains sidelined with a left hand injury; four players have started at center; three at right guard -- and that’s led to inconsistencies in the run game and pass protection.

They also know they can’t allow a repeat of what happened in their last loss, when they drove to the Tennessee 2-yard line late in the game but failed to convert in a 21-17 defeat. That game remains burned in some minds.

But after Sunday’s win in Indy, while the players celebrated, they also know more will be expected in coming weeks.

“We’re glad we won,” Allen said Sunday. “It’s about winning but it’s also about how you win. We made this game a lot harder on ourselves, and there’s a lot of things that we’re going to need to improve on if we want to get to the places we want to get to.”