Washington's division title hunt will be determined by next four games

ASHBURN, Va. -- The so-called easy part of the Washington Football Team's schedule remains directly in front of them. It fuels hope and optimism, whether real or false. The team faces four winnable games in the next month, giving it a realistic chance to not only stick around in the NFC East race but to win it.

Washington (2-5) has lost four games by at least two touchdowns. Nothing has been, or will be, easy. But in a division in which the first-place team, the Philadelphia Eagles, is 3-4-1, anything is possible.

Washington begins the challenge Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (Fox) against the New York Giants (1-7). It then plays at the Detroit Lions (3-4), against the Cincinnati Bengals (2-5-1) and at the Dallas Cowboys (2-6). Washington won't be favored in each of those games, but those teams have a combined 8-22-1 record. If Washington thinks it can make the playoffs, it has to emerge with at least two, and more likely three, wins over this four-game stretch.

"The division is wide the hell open," Washington right tackle Morgan Moses said. "The last time I checked, man, anything can happen when you get in the dance. Miracles can happen. ... A lot of teams get hot in the playoffs. Our job is to take care of division opponents."

Washington is 2-1 in the NFC East, having lost at the Giants, 20-19, after a failed two-point conversion in the final minute. The Giants are 3-0 vs. Washington in the past two seasons, and 2-19 vs. everyone else.

"We have to be at our best if we hope to make some noise," Washington coach Ron Rivera said. "The next few weeks are very important in the NFC East race. ... We're taking nothing for granted."

After this four-game stretch comes Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Seattle for Washington. The 49ers have been decimated by injuries, but if Washington doesn't enter this stretch with some momentum, it could quickly go from thinking about an NFC East title to wondering which prospect it will draft in the top seven in April.

"Are we a good enough team to do it consistently enough? That's what will define who we are as a team and as an organization," said Washington defensive tackle Jonathan Allen.

But this is the opportunity ahead for Washington. And Rivera can speak to it from experience. In 2014 with Carolina, the Panthers were 3-8-1 before winning their final four games to finish 7-8-1 and win the NFC South. Carolina won its wild-card game, and then hung with Seattle into the fourth quarter before losing by two touchdowns in the divisional round of the playoffs.

"People said we didn't deserve to be there," Rivera said, "and we turn around and win our first playoff game and go on the road and scare the heck out of a good team. It doesn't matter. However you can get in, get in."

In Carolina, Rivera's teams fared better in the second half of seasons. He said training in the heat and humidity of South Carolina often wore them down and led to slow starts. But he did say there are some similarities to this situation.

"If you look at my first two years in Carolina, it was really about the development and growing," he said. "That's what I hope we are, that we're developing and growing right now."

This season, Washington did play better in its two games before its Week 8 bye, though they were against the Giants and a wounded Dallas team. Washington hopes it has gained some confidence and momentum from those consistent performances.

In the first five games, the offense averaged 3.48 yards per carry, 4.19 yards per play and 27 minutes and 24 seconds in time of possession. It punted 31 times. In the past two games, Washington has punted three times, averaged 5.44 yards per play and 4.67 yards per rush while controlling the ball for 34:57. Quarterback Kyle Allen has a total QBR of 69.9 -- 17th in the NFL during his three starts -- compared to Dwayne Haskins' 31.4 rating, which ranked last.

Washington also has a defense ranked fourth in total yards and 11th in points allowed, and will face one offense in the next four weeks that's in the top-10 in total yards -- Dallas, which is a vastly different offense right now because of injuries.

"We are getting better; we are closer to what we ultimately want to become," Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner said.

Many factors exist for why Washington's past two games went better, including quality of the opponent.

"It starts with the run game," Washington receiver Terry McLaurin said. "I'm a big believer in [the] trenches is what wins games. ... And the way Kyle is executing and giving us confidence."

Washington needs that to continue. All along, the organization understood it would likely start slow, given a new staff, young roster and a pandemic-impacted offseason. If that's the case, then the second half should be a better one. Rivera said some of the young receivers, for example, are starting to see why routes need to be run with a certain patience. The defensive linemen have had to adapt to new techniques, not all of which they have embraced.

They have a young running back in Antonio Gibson, who rushed for 128 yards against Dallas. He has improved at running with patience, pressing the hole and not looking to bounce every run.

"As a coach, that's gratifying. But you wish they'd get it sooner," Rivera said. "Right now, we're kind of going through these 'aha-moments' and, hopefully, they continue. Again, as the players see these little things and they make more and more sense, now you're going to see them play with more discipline. They're going to play faster. They're going to get to where they need to be to make plays. That's why 'a-ha moments' are so important."

Those "a-ha moments" could lead to something else: A successful four-game stretch that vaults Washington deeper into the race for a division title.