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Washington storms to top of NFC East behind Alex Smith and Antonio Gibson

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Gibson waves to Cowboys' defense on TD run (0:21)

Antonio Gibson turns back and waves to the Cowboys' defense as he rolls into the end zone for the touchdown. (0:21)

The Washington Football Team endured a rocky summer, which followed a terrible season. It dropped a controversial name, was the subject of stories involving harassment allegations from former employees and was 2-7 two weeks ago.

And yet.

Here comes Washington.

After a 41-16 win against the Dallas Cowboys Thursday night, Washington now somehow has the lead in the NFC East. It might be temporary because the New York Giants play the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday and would be in first with a win.

But Washington is having fun, developing an identity and taking advantage of a schedule conducive to contention in a bad division. It has a young running back in Antonio Gibson who gets better every week and rushed for 115 yards and three touchdowns.

It has an offensive coordinator in Scott Turner who called for several trick plays that worked, including a tight end pass by former quarterback Logan Thomas for a 28-yard gain. They also used a play in the red zone in which quarterback Alex Smith snuck an underneath handoff to running back J.D. McKissic, his hands nearly touching the ground, who ran around the other end for 6 yards.

The 36-year-old Smith is the feel-good story, and he has provided a huge boost since becoming the starter. But Thursday also highlighted Washington's young players: the rookie Gibson, second-year receiver Terry McLaurin (seven catches, 92 yards), defensive end Montez Sweat (interception return for a touchdown). Rookie end Chase Young recorded a sack and had key stops in the run game. It's a team that has stuck together despite a rocky start under first-year coach Ron Rivera, whose battle with cancer left him fatigued, but the team galvanized.

"We're finding our identity and getting better," Smith said.

Thursday, Washington took advantage of a Dallas offense playing with makeshift line and on its third set of tackles. But after the offseason it had, and the start to this season, Washington isn't going to care. It still has games remaining vs. San Francisco, Carolina and Philadelphia. It has a chance to win seven games and make the postseason.

"I couldn't stop smiling on the sidelines," McLaurin said of being in first place. "All we've been through this year, the ups and the downs from the offseason to now. To be in first place is something to be proud of. We can't celebrate like we won the whole division. We've got a lot of season left."

Quarterback breakdown: Smith is back to being who he was -- a game manager who provides wisdom and experience to help teammates. Smith completed 19 of 26 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown. He made a bad decision, and throw, that resulted in an interception and nearly a tied game. But Smith just knows how to handle the game. He's not fazed by pressure. There were times he could have forced more throws down the field, but he also worked his backs and tight ends with success. It kept the chains moving. Washington will struggle to beat good teams, but with Smith, it can run a lot more of its offense and that gives it a chance against the lesser teams.

strong>Troubling trend: Washington's pass defense has been rocky in recent weeks to say the least in the first half of games. It allowed 195 yards in the first half a week ago to Cincinnati QB Joe Burrow, let Dallas hit a 54-yard touchdown pass Thursday and let Andy Dalton have some success as well. He finished with only 215 yards, thanks to a much better second half. In two of the next three weeks Washington faces Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and Seattle's Russell Wilson. They need to tighten up. Some of it is playing with a lot of cushion to keep throws underneath; other times they're fooled by play-action. The good sign, though, is that they've played well in the red zone.

Pivotal play: For some reason, Dallas tried a fake punt on fourth-and-10 from its own 24-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Dallas ran a reverse, but linebacker Khaleke Hudson, on the outside, was not fooled and forced Cedrick Wilson back inside where Cole Luke tackled him. On the next play Gibson sprinted 23 yards for a touchdown and 27-16 lead.

Pivotal play, part 2: When Jaylon Smith picked off Alex Smith -- the QB never saw him, and it was nearly a killer mistake. But Washington drafted McLaurin because he makes plays like this: McLaurin sprinted after Smith and tackled him at the 4-yard line after avoiding a block by another Dallas defender. Washington's defense held from there and forced a field goal; McLaurin's hustle saved four points and kept Washington in the lead. McLaurin does so many little things that his value extends way beyond just catching passes.