Still, the Steelers remain atop the A.F.C., ahead of the Kansas City Chiefs, also 11-1, on tiebreakers. Though they must correct those flaws if they are to contend for the franchise’s seventh Super Bowl title, the Steelers are in little danger of missing the playoffs. Washington must nudge past the Giants, who own the head-to-head tiebreaker, but, as Rivera said after the game, it demonstrated on Monday that it had the potential to beat anyone.
“We have got to be able to make sure we understand that we’re capable of it,” Rivera said. “And I think it tells the other teams that, ‘Hey, we’re pretty good.’ We got some guys that can play.”
Washington is built on a stout defensive front, a balanced offense and a certain toughness embodied by Rivera, who learned that he has cancer in late August, seven months after he was hired to restore credibility (and playoff appearances) to a bedraggled franchise. He served as its voice while upheaval engulfed the organization, and fulfilled his coaching duties even as he underwent treatment that left him so weak he had trouble standing during games.
While Rivera set about molding the team, a turbulent off-season damaged Washington’s reputation. Its melodramas have not been resolved. Most visibly, the team’s owner, Dan Snyder, in July succumbed to pressure to get rid of the team’s 87-year-old name and logo, which were viewed by many as racist, after sponsors revolted. A month later, an independent law firm began its investigation into accusations of sexual harassment made by 15 women who had worked for the organization. That investigation was started by Snyder, but later taken over by the N.F.L.
The organizational tumult has continued into the season, with a power struggle between Snyder and partial owners over control of the team. Just this week, the league’s investigation into the team’s workplace uncovered a confidential settlement from a decade ago, according to The Washington Post.
The team began the season with a second-year quarterback, Dwayne Haskins, as the starter, then shifted to Kyle Allen, who played for Rivera at Carolina and dislocated his ankle in Week 9, creating an opportunity for Smith.
After recovering from a gruesome compound fracture that endangered his leg, Smith did not have to play a single down this season to be considered a favorite to be the league’s comeback player of the year. But across the last four games, he has stabilized Washington with reliable play and stellar ball security — just two turnovers — to vault the team into contention. In this season of all seasons, a postseason berth for these players, this coach and especially this quarterback, would be a coda worthy of another nesting doll.