Commanders stew after playoff hopes dim in prime-time loss to Giants: ‘Disappointing as heck’

LANDOVER — As a sea of reporters surrounded Terry McLaurin after Sunday’s 20-12 loss to the New York Giants, Taylor Heinicke looked over to the Washington Commanders wide receiver and shook his head in disbelief. The quarterback was still fuming over the illegal formation penalty that the referees called on his teammate, which wiped away a fourth-quarter touchdown in the final minute.

Heinicke muttered to no one in particular over the specifics of the play. Pre-snap at New York’s 1-yard line, McLaurin turned to the nearby official to confirm he was lined up correctly. And in turn, the official appeared to give him a thumbs up. 

But then came the flag as running back Brian Robinson ran into the end zone. No touchdown.

“It’s frustrating because I pride myself in the attention to details,” McLaurin said. “And I’m detail oriented with everything I do. … I felt like I was good with (the official’s) confirmation.”

“That play is very questionable,” Heinicke said later.

No, referees didn’t cost Washington a victory. The Commanders, after all, still had two more chances following the five-yard penalty, with Heinicke throwing incompletions each time.  But in a prime-time affair with so much on the line in terms of playoff hopes, Heinicke, McLaurin and the Commanders couldn’t help but stew over missed moments in the aftermath of Sunday’s loss to their NFC East rival. 

Those moments, though, included far more than the debatable calls from the officials. Heinicke fumbled twice — one that was recovered for a touchdown and the other that ruined a promising, potential game-tying drive in the fourth. The Commanders were again horrendous in the red zone, scoring only once in three chances. And the defense — while better this time around against a team it tied two weeks ago — still came up short in Sunday’s rematch. 

Here’s how costly this weekend’s defeat could be for the Commanders: According to NBC, Washington now only has a 34% chance of making the postseason. A victory would have boosted those odds to 91%.

Washington (7-6-1) would still technically be in the postseason as the seventh seed if the postseason started today as the team is up a half-game in the standings, ahead of the 7-7 Detroit Lions and 7-7 Seattle Seahawks. 

But with three games remaining, the Commanders will likely have to win at least two of the last three against San Francisco (10-4), Cleveland (6-8) and Dallas (10-4) to secure their spot. 

They’re facing an uphill battle.

“It’s disappointing as heck,” coach Ron Rivera said. “It really is. It pisses me off more than anything. We had an opportunity to win.” 

The Commanders knew the stakes going in this weekend’s contest — and so did the rest of the nation. Television executives had moved this showdown to “Sunday Night Football,” and there was a noticeable buzz at FedEx Field — both before kickoff (with parking lots packed with tailgaters) and during the game (with a juiced crowd of 61,917.) And unlike in past games, when opposing fanbases would invade the team’s stadium, Washington’s own fans mostly filled the seats. 

But the Giants (8-5-1) also desperately needed a victory for their playoff hopes. And New York seized control of the matchup early. In the second quarter, rookie pass-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux beat Commanders left tackle Charles Leno around the edge to force a Heinicke fumble that he scooped up to give the Giants a 7-3 lead. 

Washington’s defense, meanwhile, couldn’t generate those types of turnovers. With New York backed up to the 3-yard line, quarterback Daniel Jones helped lead the Giants on an 18-play, 97-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown by running back Saquon Barkley with 1:43 left in the first half. 

Beyond the score, perhaps what was most notable about that punishing drive was that Giants coach Brian Daboll called for his team to go for it on fourth-and-9 from Washington’s 35-yard line — a risk that was rewarded with an 11-yard completion to wideout Richie James. 

Daboll’s choice stood in stark contrast to how Rivera handled a similar situation in which Washington punted from New York’s 34-yard line. 

By doing so, the Commanders passed up a 48-yard field goal attempt. 

“We were a little bit concerned about that ball coming up short,” Rivera said. 

Still, for so much of this season, the Commanders routinely clawed their way back into games and prevailed in tight contests because of heroics from Heinicke and repeated stops from the defense.

And for moments against the Giants, Washington seemed like it was going to find success by relying on that formula again. Heinicke (249 yards on 17 of 29 passing for one touchdown)  helped the Commanders make a second-half push, starting with a third-quarter, 19-yard touchdown to Jahan Dotson on a perfectly placed ball. 

Then later, down 17-12, Heinicke again had a huge connection with Dotson — finding him on a 61-yard bomb to get Washington in scoring position. The Commanders got all the way down to the 5-yard, but Heinicke fumbled while trying to evade pressure — leading to a recovery by Giants defensive lineman Lawrence Williams. 

Deflated by the turnover, the Commanders’ defense then gave up a series of Barkley runs to allow New York into field goal territory. Former Washington kicker Graham Gano hit a 50-yarder that gave New York an eight-point lead with just under two minutes left. 

But the Commanders still had a chance — and over the next six plays, Heinicke got his team all the way down to the 1 with a series of chunk passes and a scramble just out of bounds by the pylon. 

Then, came the controversy. McLaurin was whistled for a five-yard penalty — a call that referee John Hussey defended to a pool reporter. “He was clearly off the line of scrimmage,” said Hussey, who was not the official who made the call. Making matters worse for the Commanders, the referees call defensive pass interference on Heinicke’s final incompletion of the game — despite there being ample contact between cornerback Darnay Holmes and receiver Curtis Samuel. 

Wanting a flag, Rivera threw his headset in anger when no call was made. 

Even if the Commanders had scored, however, Washington would have needed to convert a two-point conversion. And that was far from guaranteed. 

“(I) just feel like we let it go,” Heinicke said.

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