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Ron Rivera has a breakthrough victory, and just maybe Washington is learning how to win

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/27/2020 Les Carpenter
a baseball player holding a bat on a field: Ron Rivera’s team has back-to-back wins and the NFC East lead all to itself. (Roger Steinman/AP) © Roger Steinman/AP Ron Rivera’s team has back-to-back wins and the NFC East lead all to itself. (Roger Steinman/AP)

ARLINGTON, Tex. — Learning to win — how many times have we heard Washington Football Team Coach Ron Rivera talk about that?

For weeks he has insisted his young team was getting better, understanding the fight, drawing closer to walking off victorious from NFL fields even as the losing kept coming and the climb back became more improbable by the game. “Learning to win,” he would say. But suddenly Washington has started winning, twice in a row, seizing openings created by Joe Burrow’s injury and butchered, baffling decisions by Dallas Cowboys Coach Mike McCarthy.

Thursday’s 41-16 victory on Thanksgiving came with the gift of McCarthy’s choice not to punt from the Dallas 34-yard line and a ridiculous fake punt from its 24. But Washington seized the opportunities presented it, turning those mistakes into points to earn only its second Thanksgiving win against its fiercest rival.

“You’ve got to distance yourself from them,” Rivera told his players at halftime, when they held a tenuous 17-13 lead.

So many times this season, his team hasn’t been able to open that gap or push through when given openings. For the second time in five days, Washington has done just that: churning, churning, churning toward ugly but effective victories. And now it is in first place in the wretched NFC East, with a 4-7 record that won’t glow proudly from the top of the standings but still screams progress for an organization where progress has come hard.

Washington overwhelms the Cowboys, 41-16, to grab the NFC East lead

Learning to win — earlier this week, Rivera was talking about what that meant. “Doing your job with a little something extra,” he said.

If you make a block, you need to hold it longer. If you run a route, you have to do it at exactly the right pace. If the ball is in your hands, push for one yard more.

“Take ownership,” he said. “If you’re not doing it well, do it better.”

Learning to win — there was the burgundy blur of wide receiver Terry McLaurin, chasing Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith down the AT&T Stadium sideline, trying to keep Smith from a certain touchdown after he had intercepted an Alex Smith pass near midfield. Washington was up, 20-13, and Jaylon Smith was about to tie the score until McLaurin — after sprinting almost 50 yards — lunged at the racing Smith, tackling him at the Washington 4-yard line.

Learning to win — there was Washington’s defense on that 4-yard line, trying to keep Dallas from tying the score, stopping running back Ezekiel Elliot, stopping wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, knocking the ball away in the end zone, forcing a field goal but slicing the heart from whatever hope Dallas might have had.

“It gave our team a chance,” Rivera said of McLaurin’s chase and tackle. “That’s all you need to do — give the team a chance.”

Perhaps they don’t seem like much, these beatings of the Bengals and the Cowboys. Cincinnati was never the same Sunday after Burrow fell to the turf at FedEx Field, holding his knee, screaming so loud that his cries rattled around the empty stands. And Dallas, already without quarterback Dak Prescott, lost both of its starting tackles in the game’s early minutes Thursday.

Four takeaways from Washington’s 41-16 blowout win over Dallas

But for a Washington team that couldn’t win after dominating second halves at the New York Giants and Detroit, the fact that it has taken advantage of the other team’s misfortune and turned those advantages into wins in back-to-back games has to feel especially good. Football rarely is a game of beauty. The teams that gain from someone else’s affliction are those that often win most. For years, teams have benefited from Washington’s calamities. Rivera’s message of doing the same to others shouldn’t be difficult to grasp.

“We’re capitalizing when we need to capitalize,” running back Antonio Gibson said.

Change was coming on the night Washington last slumped from this building, as 47-16 losers in what would become the final game played under its old name. By then, team owner Daniel Snyder was finished with team president Bruce Allen, finished with a dismal decade that would close two days later, finished with a path that had only brought misery.

He refused to even look at the soon-to-be-exiting Allen as they passed in the tunnel below the stands, leaving Allen to make a long, slow, humiliating walk to the team buses while Snyder’s police-escorted motorcade of black SUVs roared past. Within hours, Rivera would be on a plane, signing his contract to become the team’s new coach.

Three days later, Snyder stood beside Rivera at the news conference announcing a new beginning, leaned into a microphone and blurted, “Happy Thanksgiving.”

While Snyder obviously had misspoken — botching his holiday wishes and turning his first comments on a new start into a joke that rolled through a tumultuous summer — his mistake may have turned out to be prophetic. If the winning should continue for Washington, Thursday’s will be Rivera’s first signature win, a blowout on the scoreboard that marks a turning point he has been seeking for weeks.

Antonio Gibson’s career day shines a spotlight on Washington’s promising young core

A hard road looms with a game at undefeated Pittsburgh in 10 days and one at San Francisco a week later. But in the NFC East, which probably will not be won by a team with a winning record, Washington’s back-to-back wins have given it what a racing Terry McLaurin did when he ran down Jaylon Smith: a chance.

And that’s something Washington didn’t have just five days ago, when a young team was still grappling to understand that simplest of phrases forever uttered by its new coach: “learning to win.”

Sometimes it’s not that hard.


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