Commanders lose to Browns, see postseason hopes all but dashed

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A chorus of “Hein-ick-e!” chants ushered Carson Wentz back onto the field deep in his team’s territory. He had already thrown two interceptions, the first of which incited calls for a switch back to quarterback Taylor Heinicke, and the Washington Commanders also had turned the ball over on downs, completing a blueprint of the worst-case scenario in a game with a major playoff implications.

And the second quarter had barely begun.

The “spark” that Coach Ron Rivera hoped to find by benching Heinicke in favor of Wentz never fully lit. Instead, they poured out of the FedEx Field stands as fans called for backup, hit the exits well before the game ended, then were left to grapple with elimination from playoff contention later in the day.

Outside of a 21-play touchdown drive that consumed much of the second quarter Sunday, the Commanders again were in disarray because of three Wentz interceptions and a leaky defense as they fell, 24-10, to the playing-for-nothing Cleveland Browns. The defeat left Washington’s postseason hopes in peril at 7-8-1 before they were extinguished entirely by the Green Bay Packers’ victory over the Minnesota Vikings early Sunday evening.

The playoff-less finish is a hugely disappointing fall for a Commanders team that, at one point, was firmly entrenched in the postseason discussion. Heinicke took over in Week 7 after Wentz had finger surgery, and he led the Commanders to five wins in six games to put them at 7-5. The stretch gave the Commanders hope that they had turned the corner, that they had the talent to win and the comfort in the scheme to move forward.

Buckner: Ron Rivera returned to his offseason gamble. It cost his team the postseason.

The stretch seemed to confirm Rivera’s methods in rebuilding the franchise.

“It’s always about where you are [in] your third season,” he said two days before Sunday’s loss. “Have you put the players in position?” Are you confident in what you’re doing as far as your scheme? And then really the thing that just shows everybody we’re there is to get to the playoffs.”

But his decision to turn back to Wentz may be remembered as the dagger to his Washington tenure after it led to a second straight failed bid for the playoffs. Now, after it went 0-3-1 in its past four games, the only possibility in Washington’s near future is yet another quarterback search in the offseason. Maybe even a full housecleaning — and perhaps a sale by owner Daniel Snyder.

The locker room after the game was eerily quiet. Frustration had mounted after the players’ postseason hopes dwindled because of their own mistakes and questionable play-calling, and Rivera saw any progress quickly eroded.

“It’s tough. It sucks,” defensive back Bobby McCain said.

Wentz finished 16 for 28 for 143 yards and no touchdowns for a dismal 31.4 passer rating. He scored the Commanders’ lone touchdown on a one-yard plunge late in the second quarter.

Analysis and takeaways from Sunday’s loss

Sunday’s damage was self-inflicted — as it typically is for Washington — and it snowballed.

On the Commanders’ third play of the game, Wentz threw a short pass intended for Terry McLaurin that Browns cornerback Denzel Ward intercepted. That let Cleveland (7-9) grab a 3-0 lead.

The Commanders’ next drive ended in a turnover on downs at the Cleveland 40-yard line. They turned to running back Jonathan Williams — and not powerful rookie Brian Robinson Jr. (87 yards on 24 carries) — on third and fourth, then again on fourth and one. Williams was stuffed for a one-yard loss.

“Turnovers, not scoring points and leaving our defense out there too long sometimes,” tight end Logan Thomas said. “We got to put points on the board.”

Washington’s red-zone defense made sure Cleveland didn’t capitalize. Defensive tackle Daron Payne sacked Deshaun Watson at the Washington 7-yard line, forcing Cleveland to try a field goal on fourth and goal. Khaleke Hudson was offside on the kick, and the Browns took the points off the board, but Watson mustered only one yard on a run to give the Commanders the ball back.

If the bleeding had stopped there, perhaps Washington would have had a chance. Instead, on his third drive, Wentz was picked off again, on a deep pass over the middle for Curtis Samuel that was snagged by Browns safety Grant Delpit.

“I tried to be aggressive, tried to force a couple of throws early, obviously, and kind of put us in a hole,” Wentz said. “Then the rest of the way, I just didn’t make enough plays personally, as a team – the whole nine yards. I’m definitely kicking myself over some.”

Picks, sacks and boos usher Carson Wentz towards an uncertain NFL future

The Commanders forced a three-and-out, but on the first play — a sack of Watson by Montez Sweat — defensive tackle Jonathan Allen suffered a left knee injury and later was ruled out for the rest of the game. Rivera said Allen hyperextended his knee and that further evaluation Monday would determine the extent of the injury.

His loss, along with the absences of cornerback Benjamin St-Juste and safety Kam Curl due to ankle injuries, proved particularly painful. Washington’s run defense cratered, and its pass defense got exposed.

In a 37-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Christmas Eve, Washington gave up five plays of 20 yards or more. Against the Browns, the Commanders gave up six — including a 46-yard touchdown catch by Amari Cooper, who slipped through the grasp of cornerback Kendall Fuller en route to the end zone in the third quarter. Watson later had two more deep passes that set up a 13-yard touchdown catch by Donovan Peoples-Jones in the third, then a 33-yard, pylon-diving touchdown by Cooper that sent Commanders fans to the exits in the fourth.

“You can’t miss tackles – not against big runners, good runners,” Rivera said. “You got to make sure, if you do anything, you at least slow them down so somebody else can come in and tackle them. We missed a couple completely.”

Cooper’s second score extended the Browns’ lead to 24-10 with 5:21 left, and the result could have been much worse had the Commanders not consumed much of the second quarter with their lone touchdown drive.

Rivera said Wentz “had his moments” but that he considered switching back to Heinicke.

“When they went up by 14, I figured for sure we’d be throwing the ball downfield,” Rivera said.

In the second quarter, Wentz quieted the chants for Heinicke just long enough to lead the Commanders on a 21-play, 96-yard drive that spanned 11:27 — its longest by time since at least 2000 — and culminated with a Wentz sneak for a touchdown. Wentz dived over the pile from a yard out, using every inch of his 6-foot-5 frame to cross the goal line and give the Commanders a 7-3 halftime lead.

The satisfaction of the crowd lasted just long enough for the Commanders to introduce their new mascot, a hog named Major Tuddy, and honor their famous “Hogs” offensive line at halftime.

But the fans soon resumed their role as frustrated commentators.

Washington’s pièce de résistance came in the final minutes: an overthrown pass by Wentz, a drop by Thomas, a pair of false starts and a turnover on downs.

But few stayed long enough to witness it. The fans already stampeded towards the exits — their loudest call yet for change.

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