LANDOVER, Md. (AP) — Backed up at their own 10-yard line after a holding penalty in the first half of a game with little offense, the Washington Commanders curiously — and dangerously — went with an empty backfield. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke dropped back and got strip-sacked by New York Giants edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, who grabbed the ball at the 1 and ran into the end zone.
Poor concept. Poor play call. Poor formation. Poor blocking.
“The turning point in that game; the biggest play of that game,” Heinicke called it.
Then, in the fourth quarter, with the Commanders at New York’s 5 and with a shot to pull ahead, Heinicke got sacked again — and fumbled again, this time with Dexter Lawrence doing the damage. The Giants converted that turnover into a field goal.
For a team, and a player, that had so much go its way for so long after Heinicke replaced an injured Carson Wentz, the Commanders and their QB failed to pick up a victory in a key divisional matchup because of a mix of miscues, red-zone issues and questionable coaching choices. And those two fumbles by Heinicke loomed large in a 20-12 loss to the Giants that was only Washington’s second defeat in its past nine games.
“Just got to protect the ball better,” Heinicke said.
In a rematch of the NFC East rivals’ 20-all tie on Dec. 4, neither club looked all that good, but it was the Giants who improved to 8-5-1 and solidified their playoff positioning, while the Commanders dropped to 7-6-1 coming off their bye. That puts Washington still in line for the third and last wild-card spot in the conference, but it’s now just a half-game ahead of the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks, who are both 7-7 with three games left in the regular season.
“The biggest thing is getting in the red zone and not converting touchdowns. Settling for field goals. Turning the ball over,” Commanders rookie receiver Jahan Dotson said. “We can’t do that if we want to beat good teams. That’s the frustrating part.”
Washington had come into this prime-time matchup on a 6-1-1 roll following a 1-4 start to the season to suddenly surge into relevance in the standings amid all of the off-field investigations into owner Dan Snyder and his exploration of a possible sale.
That run included going 5-1-1 with Heinicke as the starter after Wentz broke a finger. Wentz was back in uniform as the backup on Sunday, but Rivera quickly replied “No,” when asked whether he considered a quarterback switch at halftime.
But this was Henicke’s show, and he finished 17 for 29 for 249 yards with a 19-yard touchdown pass to rookie first-round draft pick Jahan Dotson, earning chants of “Hei-nick-ee!”
The pair of sack-fumbles was pivotal, though. So, seemingly, were some odd choices by Rivera. That included eschewing what would have been a 52-yard field-goal try and punting on the Commanders’ opening drive.
There also was an early 2-point conversion attempt that drew a penalty call — one that the Commanders complained about — and led to a lengthy extra-point attempt that Joey Slye missed.
And then there was Heinicke’s inability to get the ball into the end zone at the close of the game, part of an ongoing trend of red-zone mistakes.
“We were great between the 20s. We just got to finish with touchdowns, not field goals,” tight end Logan Thomas said, “and obviously not turn the football over.”
Heinicke was stopped on a run at the 1 by Thibodeaux. After that, running back Brian Robinson appeared to get the TD, but an illegal formation call on Terry McLaurin erased that — a call McLaurin found surprising because he said an official assured him before the snap that he was lined up OK.
On third down, Heinicke threw incomplete. Another incompletion followed on fourth down with under a minute left, with Giants cornerback Darnay Holmes draped all over receiver Curtis Samuel. And that was that.
“I thought we did everything we’re supposed to do, from getting the ball down to the 1-yard line to getting lined up, checking to make sure we’re lined up properly and then having it taken away,” Rivera said, “and that’s why it’s hard to comprehend that.”
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