The Washington Commanders went into their Thanksgiving matchup against the Dallas Cowboys needing a win, and the 45-10 loss to their NFC East rival was crushing for the season. The Commanders now find themselves 4-8 for the season and 13th in the NFC playoff picture, but with five weeks still to play, the Commanders season is not officially over just yet.
So, what are the chances the Washington Commanders will make the playoffs this year and what does this season mean for the future of the franchise?
The Washington Commanders Path to the Playoffs
A Crushing Loss in Dallas
Despite the 45-10 score in Week 12 against the Dallas Cowboys, the game was not as one-sided as the score makes it seem. The onslaught of scoring in the fourth quarter made it look ugly, but the fact is that Washington was competitive for most of the game only down by 10 at the very most until the final quarter was underway.
Moments of impact caused the Commanders to be in a position where they needed to chase points to catch up, which is tremendously difficult to do against this clinical Dallas Cowboys team, currently excelling on both sides of the ball.
Three touchdowns in the fourth quarter put the game firmly on ice, with quarterback Dak Prescott finding CeeDee Lamb and then Kavonte Turpin with his third and fourth touchdown passes of the day.
By that point, it is hard to pin the pick-six in the final minute of the game solely on Sam Howell. With nothing left to lose, Howell tried to force a throw down the left side to receiver Jahan Dotson, only to be picked off by none other than Cowboys cornerback DaRon Bland. Bland was one pick six away from the NFL record in a single season and managed to house his interception to make it five, claiming the record in the process.
It’s a crushing loss, for the season and the Commanders coaching regime which saw defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s three-year tenure come to an end, but it wasn’t as ugly as it looked for three-plus quarters.
Dak Prescott is playing MVP-caliber football right now but look at Sam Howell keeping pace with the eight-year veteran on the road in Arlington. Dak threw for 331 passing yards, Howell had 300. Dallas had 100 rushing yards and Washington had 108.
The pick-six in the final minute of the game was the sole turnover by this Commanders offense that has struggled with turnovers this season. Limiting turnovers against a strong Dallas team was critical, but the Cowboys were just the better team that day.
Playoff Chances Dwindling, But Not Completely Over
Washington now has a 1% chance of making the playoffs, meaning it is seemingly impossible, but you never say never in football.
There are three playoff spots up for grabs in the NFC Wild Card, with the Commanders being one of seven teams currently on the outside looking in. The Cowboys, who now sit at 9-3 after their Week 13 win against the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday Night Football, entered the week in a three-way tie for the best record in the NFC, behind divisional rival the Philadelphia Eagles.
That means Dallas will more than likely enter the playoffs as the 5th seed with the top spot in the NFC Wild Card, and even if they somehow overtake the Eagles, those roles would only be reversed. Both will consume a playoff spot, meaning everybody else needs to scramble to claim the 6th and 7th seed to get in.
Those spots are currently occupied by the Minnesota Vikings (6-6) and the Seattle Seahawks (6-6). Seattle looks like a playoff team and held their own against the Cowboys in Dallas, but the Minnesota Vikings led by backup quarterback Josh Dobbs, are still very much in the playoff hunt.
Essentially, the Washington Commanders, now fourth in the NFC East, will need to win their final five games of the regular season to stand a chance of making the playoffs. The Packers, Rams, and Saints all have five wins and a game in hand over the Commanders, meaning any or all of them could be two games ahead of Washington with just a few games to play.
The Commanders best shot is to win all five of their remaining games, which would land them a 9-8 record. In theory, that could be enough, but it would still require several favorable results from other teams also in the hunt. They would need the Packers, Rams, and Saints to each lose at least three of their six remaining games, and would also need Tampa Bay (4-7) to avoid a late-season run.
Some of these teams do not come across as too much of a threat, and it is hard to see a world where the New York Giants (4-8) mount a five-game win streak. The New Orleans Saints (5-6), who were without star running back Alvin Kamara for the first three games of the season, have struggled to stay healthy this season with receiver Michael Thomas being placed on the injured reserve in Week 12 and receivers Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed also dealing with injuries.
Green Bay on the other hand is healthy and surging, having managed back-to-back wins over the Los Angeles Chargers and Detroit Lions.
The Rams are also in contention despite star receivers Cooper Kupp and rookie Puka Nacua not playing at a full 100%. Running back Kyren Williams made his return from injured reserve on Sunday, posting 143 rushing yards, 61 receiving yards and two touchdowns in his first game back.
The road to the playoffs will be far from easy for the Washington Commanders who will now face the Miami Dolphins at home in Week 13. This is a must-win game for the Commanders, if they lose and any of the other teams in the Wild Card chase win, the Commanders playoff hopes will be over.
However, if they can beat Miami, which will be no easy feat, then face the Rams head-to-head. Say the Commanders win against the Dolphins and the Rams lose against the Browns, the gap will close. Both teams would then have five wins with a game against one another that would decide who has a chance of making it in. Win those two and the Commanders are 6-8. The job would be far from finished, but it is a great starting point.
Sam Howell will need his very best stuff down the stretch regardless. The final five games involve some of the best defenses in the league. Ending the regular season going against the New York Jets, the San Fransico 49ers, and a rematch with their divisional rival Dallas Cowboys in their final three games is tough schedule for just about any offense in football.
A View to the Future
This season is likely to be the last for Washington head coach Ron Rivera, though if he can lead his team into the playoffs, he may be able to buy himself some more time as the head man for the Commanders. If not, the new ownership in Washington will likely bring in a fresh coaching staff.
Rivera has been with the team since 2020 and fought hard for the franchise, while also battling a cancer diagnosis in his early years in Washington. He took the team to the playoffs in his first season in charge, but benefited from a weak division, claiming the top spot with a 7-9 record.
The Commanders have not had a winning season under Ron Rivera, peaking at 8-8 in 2022. It does feel like the team could be on the verge of a breakthrough year, but the team will likely look a lot different. With the team under new ownership this year, it is safe to say that the team will likely move in a different direction as they look to turn the franchise around.
Sam Howell has done more than enough to prove that he is capable of being the franchise quarterback for the Washington Commanders going forward. With the team set on a quarterback for at least another season or two, management can attribute their draft capital to other areas of the roster.
Washington has a young team, and they are only getting better with experience, but there are still several glaring needs for the Commanders to fill for the team to be successful. Washington needs to address the offensive line, perhaps add a lockdown corner in the secondary and fill in gaps in the front seven on defense.
If a new coach and staff are hired after the season comes to an end, they will need to address the roster and decide what they want to chase before free agency and the draft rolls around.
Main Photo: Jerome Miron – USA Today Sports