The Commanders still lost in overtime, 34-31. So a game that could lead to better things in the coming weeks only led to frustration Sunday. That’s why, at one point in his postgame news conference, Washington coach Ron Rivera pounded his fist on the podium during one answer. And the frustration was visible on his face.
“There’s no moral victories,” Rivera said. “When you put yourself in position you’ve got to capitalize on it.”
If the Commanders (2-2) play like that again Thursday vs. the Chicago Bears (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video) and the foreseeable future they can look back on this game as a building block. After playing the Bears (1-3), Washington plays at Atlanta (2-2) and the New York Giants (1-2).
They have a chance to make noise. But only if they duplicate this effort -- offensively in particular.
Sunday, they had a quarterback in Sam Howell, making his fifth start, who led two fourth-quarter scoring drives to tie the game, including a 64-yard drive in the final one minute, 43 seconds that ended with a 10-yard strike to receiver Jahan Dotson on the final play of regulation. Howell rebounded from an ugly four-interception game against Buffalo last week to throw for 290 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
“That’s growth,” Rivera said. “That’s what we’re looking for, make some mistakes and come back and play your ass off.”
“He had a great game,” Washington running back Antonio Gibson said, “especially with all the critics last week. He acted like none of it fazed him and he showed what he was.”
Howell made quicker decisions with the ball, threw it away when in danger -- even though he was still sacked five times. He now has been sacked 24 times. But despite the pressure he took care of the ball and delivered in clutch moments. On the two fourth-quarter drives, Howell completed a combined 12 of 16 passes for 106 yards.
“That’s what we believe he’s capable of,” Rivera said. “We have a lot of confidence in him.”
In four games, Howell has flashed enough to create optimism for his future. Still, Rivera wore more frustration after a game than most, partly because of the sudden death ending. But, he said, it’s also a sign of what he thinks about this team, especially in Year 4 of his program.
“Some mistakes we made we’ve got to get past that,” he said. “The little things, the details. We have to be [better] with that because if we are, you saw us, we played a very good team and we have a chance. But let’s start winning.”
That’s the yin and yang of this game: Washington saw what it needed out of its offense. The Commanders finished with 365 total yards, converted 8-of-17 third downs and surpassed 30 points for the second time this season. The Commanders have not scored 30 or more points three times in a season since 2016.
But Washington’s offense can’t keep getting Howell sacked. He’s on pace to be sacked 102 times.
Then there’s the defense, which allowed 415 total yards for the game and 24 points after halftime. For the Commanders to truly build, the defense that was expected to be among the best needs to finish stronger. It’s the third consecutive game Washington has allowed 30 or more points.
Rookie corner Emmanuel Forbes struggled, getting beat by receiver A.J. Brown multiple times. He allowed two touchdown catches to Brown. He was involved in Philadelphia’s four biggest plays, whether from man or zone coverage. The Commanders will need their first-round pick to mature in order to improve as a defense.
“I’ve got to be better at my job,” Forbes said.
“The young man had a rough day,” Rivera said. “Hopefully he learns. Experience is a tough teacher but that’s the kind of stuff he needs. He needs to understand how important it is to do his job.
“You have to be disciplined. You have to read your keys and make plays.”
Washington’s locker room was in stark contrast to its last trip in Philadelphia. Last season, they upset the Eagles on Monday night, blasted music in the locker room and celebrated heartily. Sunday, there was barely a sound save for players being interviewed.
They weren’t consoling themselves with a moral win. But they took solace in what they displayed.
“The resolve, the resilience to keep on pushing,” Commanders tight end Logan Thomas said. “That’s what we do.
“We’ve got a good team. We’ve just got to put it together. We’ll be fine.”
Howell was among the most disappointed. Rivera said they had to be better with the details of the game to avoid a duplicate fate in the future.
Howell pointed to his own details as an example. On a deep ball to receiver Terry McLaurin in overtime, Howell said he could have released the ball a little earlier. With McLaurin in man coverage, he could have given him a better chance to catch the ball inbounds. Instead, McLaurin’s second foot was an inch or two out of bounds.
“We were really close against a good team,” Howell said. “We can play better. ... I don’t believe in moral victories.”