By: Andrew Hubschman
Thanks to the NFC East front-runner Washington Football Team’s loss to the Panthers this past Sunday, the NFC East remains up for grabs. Alex Smith missed his second game in a row due to a calf-strain – one that has fans worrisome. The team is unsure if he will suit up on NFC East Championship Sunday. Will his presence/absence be the difference-maker on Sunday?
The short answer is no. Yes, there is a chance that Washington will once again carry on without their starting QB. Taylor Heinicke – the man who will serve as Smith’s replacement if the latter does not play – may not have gained enough trust leading up to this point. However, his brief outing against the Panthers gives reasoning for why fans should give him a chance. On top of that, his impressive O-line will be facing a weaker D-line – assuming Eagles’ DE Fletcher Cox is a no-go.
For Washington, their main focus should be their defense. Despite having allowed 17.6 points in their last five games dating back to their Thanksgiving win over the Cowboys – the most they allowed was 20 against the Seahawks and Panthers – the defense has not looked the best in the run game, allowing 100 or more total yards on the ground in three straight games. Facing Miles Sanders on the run will be a huge task. The defense may not stop him from having a solid showing; realistically however, they could keep Sanders below 100 yards – maybe even 90.
On the bright side, however, their passing game performance coming into Sunday night has been promising. In their last two games, they held opposing quarterbacks – Russell Wilson and Teddy Bridgewater – to under 200 passing yards. DK Metcalf led the Seahawks in receiving with 43 yards against Washington and Curtis Samuel had 106. In those two games, Samuel was the only receiver that averaged 10 or more yards per reception against Washington’s defense, averaging 21.2.
For Washington, their starting corners – Ronald Darby and Kendall Fuller – have combined for 13 solo tackles and 5 passes defensed in their past two games; 4 of their PD’s came against the Panthers. They will be going up against a list of receivers led by Jalen Reagor – who has 125 receiving yards since Jalen Hurts took over at quarterback – and Zach Ertz who has 110. Others include Alshon Jeffrey with 100 and DeSean Jackson with 81. We should expect to see a solid showing from CB duo, keeping the top receiver below 70 yards receiving.
To Washington’s advantage, they will be facing a weak Eagles O-line that allowed Hurts to be sacked 9 times in their last two games. Expect Chase Young and Montez Sweat to add onto that total and pressure Hurts again and again. However, like Sanders, stopping Hurts on the ground is vital. Realistically, the defense could prevent the young QB from reaching 80 rushing yards – which might not prove to be terrible.
Overall, whether or not Alex Smith will play is not as big of a factor as people make it out to be. The offense might be fine under Heinicke, but the defense needs to continue its stretch in the passing game and allowing minimal points but also step up in the run game and go after Hurts and Sanders. If their efforts aren’t enough, then the Giants-Cowboys winner will be crowned division champions.