Washington Football Team emerging in chaotic NFC playoff race

The Washington Football Team had lost four in a row and five of the six games entering a Week 9 bye. Four of the defeats were by double digits and the fifth was against a Broncos club that had lost four consecutive games itself.

When the team returned from the bye, coach Ron Rivera tried to paint an optimistic picture. As a cancer survivor, he understood the importance of perspective and staying in the moment, so he gathered his players and spoke of how they could find light amid the apparent darkness.

His words clearly resonated with the room because Washington has not lost since. On Sunday it claimed its fourth consecutive victory, beating the Raiders 17-15 to improve its position for a playoff berth and remain in the hunt for the NFC East title.

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Washington (6-6) will play its final five games against division opponents, beginning next Sunday with the first of two remaining games versus front-running Dallas (8-4). If it wins out, something no outsider thought possible after the Halloween loss to the Broncos, Washington would claim the division title.

“The Monday coming out of the bye, I told our guys we have a chance,” Rivera told me by text Sunday night. “All we have to do is take it one game at a time. Focus all our energy on it one game at a time and let’s get to the ‘Divisional Round Robin’ with a chance to win it and we will see! Let’s just give ourselves a chance.”

That chance started with a 10-point win over the defending Super Bowl champion Bucs, followed by one-possession victories over the Panthers, Seahawks and Raiders — the latter two by 17-15 scores. The Football Team runs the ball well and generally excels at stopping the run, but outside of that, they aren’t overwhelming in any statistical category.

However, they are resilient, an overused word that seems wholly appropriate in this instance. Football people like to say that the two most impactful positions on the field are quarterback and edge rusher, and Washington lost veteran signal-caller Ryan Fitzpatrick to a hip injury in Week 1, then saw pass rusher Chase Young, last season’s Defensive Rookie of the Year and the emotional heartbeat of the team, sustain a season-ending ACL tear on Nov. 14.

The team likely lost tight end Logan Thomas to a season-ending knee injury on Sunday, per my colleague Ian Rapoport. Thomas’ absence would be significant, but we said the same thing about Fitzpatrick and Young. And now a season that seemed to be over five weeks ago has an opportunity to extend beyond the regular season.

Washington currently holds the sixth of seven NFC postseason spots, with No. 7 San Francisco sharing the same .500 record (Washington owns the conference record tiebreaker). Behind them in the standings are five teams with seven losses and three others with eight defeats. The NFC is so wild that all 16 teams remain in playoff contention, including the 1-10-1 Lions, who beat the Vikings with an 11-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the game Sunday to earn their first win of the season.

It’s as if every time you think you have a good read on the situation, chaos reigns.

Case 1: The 49ers, who went to the Super Bowl two seasons ago, appeared to be surging after winning three in a row and four of five, scoring at least 30 points in each of the victories. But on Sunday they lost 30-23 to a Seahawks team that had dropped three in a row, six of seven and eight of 10. The 49ers allowed more points in four quarters than Seattle had scored in its previous three games combined.

Case 2: The Vikings, after a four-point loss to Dallas and a three-point defeat at Baltimore, rebounded to beat the Chargers on the road and the division-leading Packers at home. And just when everyone began speaking about them as a team no one wants to face in the playoffs, they lost at San Francisco and at Detroit in back-to-back weeks, falling out of the top seven playoff spots. They are now 5-7.

Case 3: The Eagles seemed to be on their way to becoming a legitimate playoff candidate after winning three out of four, but then lost last week to the struggling Giants, who appeared to be in disarray after firing their offensive coordinator days earlier. On Sunday they rebounded with starting QB Jalen Hurts sidelined, defeating the Jets. They are now 6-7 and hold the eighth spot in the NFC.

The only place where the waters appear to be calm are at the top of the divisions, the NFC East excluded. The Packers can clinch the NFC North next week with a win and a Vikings loss. The Bucs can secure the NFC South title next week with a victory and losses by the Panthers and Saints. The Cardinals cannot clinch the NFC West next week but can lock up a playoff spot with a win over the rival Rams.

The certainty up top is in stark contrast to what is taking place within the wild-card race, confirming that the more we know the less we actually know. Let anarchy rule.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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