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Alex Smith's calming influence gives Washington hope in NFC East

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Alex Smith connects with Sims for go-ahead TD (0:23)

Alex Smith finds Steven Sims Jr. in the end zone to put Washington ahead. (0:23)

The Washington Football Team must overcome its young roster's occasional futility and a record that would have it buried in any other division. It's a good thing they have a quarterback who has overcome a lot worse.

Thanks in part to Alex Smith, Washington remains alive in the NFC East despite a 3-7 record. Smith has steadied the offense, and Washington faces a favorable schedule down the stretch. Of its last six games, only two come against teams with a winning record (10-0 Pittsburgh and 7-3 Seattle). The other four are a combined 14-26-1.

Of course, Washington's record suggests it's an easier game on those teams' schedules as well. This team could finish with four wins and a top-five pick or six wins, a division title and a home playoff game. Beating another 3-7 team Thursday (4:30 p.m. ET, Fox), the Dallas Cowboys, would help Washington's cause. Then again, Dallas has the easiest remaining schedule in the division, facing only one team (Baltimore) with a winning record. The Cowboys' final six opponents are a combined 21-37-2.

"We understand what the division is this year," Smith said. "We really need to live week to week. That's it. I mean, we don't need to be looking at the bigger picture or weeks down the line or anything like that."

Smith's wisdom will matter over the final six games. His experience, having started 163 games in his 14 seasons, has helped calm a young offensive skill group. Of Washington's top four receivers Sunday -- Terry McLaurin, Steven Sims Jr., Isaiah Wright and Cam Sims, all but McLaurin were undrafted. Cam Sims, in his third season, has been around the longest. He's now played 18 games and has 15 receptions -- nine in the past three games combined. Those four receivers have a combined 37 starts -- 24 by McLaurin.

"Sometimes being a rookie, I overthink," Wright said. "[It's] just little subtle conversations or helping me by telling me exactly what play it is so I don't have to think. The suggestions and pointers and pulling me aside helps slow me down because I'm not nervous."

Sunday, with Washington facing a second-and-8 from its own 5-yard line late in the third quarter, Smith's experience paid off. After reading the coverage, Smith abandoned the idea of throwing to his left side, as the play was designed. Instead, he saw the corner back off Cam Sims aligned outside to his right. He quickly tossed it to Sims, who gained 12 yards. It sustained a drive that consumed 7 minutes, 24 seconds and ended with a field goal.

Washington coach Ron Rivera said he often hears offensive coordinator Scott Turner in the headset saying, "That's a heck of a decision."

"Those things are invaluable," Rivera said. "When they talk about that, the other quarterbacks in the room, they hear what's being said about those plays. The rest of the team will hear that. They'll know and will have trust in what Alex can do for us."

Washington has a running back (Antonio Gibson) who played mostly slot receiver in college and an offensive line that on Sunday used its third left tackle -- Morgan Moses, who moved over from the right side. The team went in a different direction at quarterback to open the season with Dwayne Haskins Jr., then benched him after four games. Kyle Allen started four games before getting hurt.

Perhaps Washington stumbled upon its best option in Smith.

In two starts, he has completed 55-of-80 passes for 556 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He won on Sunday for the first time since Nov. 11, 2018 -- one week before he broke his right fibula and tibia. Though he might not be as mobile as he used to be, Smith remains sharp mentally.

"He's always trying to figure out ways you can make it easier on us as receivers, make it easy on the whole offense and play complementary football," McLaurin said.

Rivera said he's been encouraged by several factors in recent games -- even in losses to the New York Giants (twice) and Detroit Lions. They lost those games by a combined seven points.

"Losing sucks, sometimes it's just miserable," Rivera said. "But coming in and looking back at those games and thinking about the progress we're making, the development that's happening and the growth you see, I'm optimistic about a lot of things. I'm optimistic about the direction we're heading. Are we where we want? No, not even close."

Some of that optimism for the future stems from the youth. But with youth often comes roller-coaster rides. That's where Smith's presence matters.

"Alex is a vet guy. Everything about him is professional. It's everything you want in a quarterback. That guy fought for his life," Steven Sims Jr. said. "He's just an inspiration. His whole story is an inspiration. I go hard just when he's back there. Regardless of who's back there, I go hard. But it's a different feeling when he's back there."