ASHBURN, Va.. (AP) — After getting into the thick of the playoff race, the Washington Commanders’ three-game winless skid put them in what seems like a straightforward position.
“If we win these two games, we’re in the playoffs,” starting left tackle Charles Leno said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Washington’s situation is more precarious than simple with the Cleveland Browns up next at home on Sunday.
The Commanders control their path to a playoff spot — beat the Browns and Dallas Cowboys and they’re in — but they could also clinch or be eliminated as soon as this weekend.
With that in mind, coach Ron Rivera turned back to Carson Wentz as his starting quarterback, believing the veteran with the strong arm gives his team a better chance to reach the postseason than Taylor Heinicke.
“We want to win both of these, obviously, to get into the playoffs,” Rivera said. “The last three games we are 0-2-1, so (we were) looking for a little something extra to give us a little something to get over the hump.”
That could be Wentz, who’s making his first start since breaking the ring finger on his right and throwing hand Oct. 13 — and having surgery that landed him on injured reserve.
The Commanders won five of their first six games with Heinicke at QB, before hitting a rut Rivera thinks Wentz can get them out of.
Cleveland is out of contention, but Wentz — who lost the final two games last year with Indianapolis in a similar situation — is not underestimating the Browns.
“The Browns are no slouch,” Wentz said. “They’re a good team. Their defense plays fast. They got some playmakers over there that we have to account for that can make life really difficult.”
That’s precisely what the Browns plan to do, from QB Deshaun Watson to edge rusher Myles Garrett and beyond after their playoff hopes slipped away.
They need to win out to match their record from last season.
“We’ve got no one to blame but ourselves,” Cleveland tight end David Njoku said. “I have no doubt that we’re going to put our best foot forward and give the Commanders hell.”
The Commanders would clinch an NFC wild-card spot with a win and losses by Seattle (against the New York Jets), Detroit (against Chicago) and Green Bay (against Minnesota).
They’d be eliminated with a loss and wins by just the Lions and Packers, which face off in Week 18.
Washington finishes the regular season against Dallas in a game that could range from each team having something to play for to neither needing it for anything.
Taking care of business and beating Cleveland assures the Commanders would still be in the race by the Cowboys game.
“We all know where we’re at,” Wentz said. “We all know what we’re capable of and what we’re up against.”
Switching from Wentz to Heinicke was a no-doubter to anyone paying attention to the Commanders’ last nine months.
The front office gave up assets to acquire Wentz, who was the unquestioned starter before being hurt, and Rivera kept Heinicke in the starting job largely because he was the “hot hand.”
It would have been “asinine,” Rivera said, to go away from Heinicke while the team was 5-1 over six games and Wentz was healthy.
Two turnovers late in the 49ers game and Wentz’s solid performance in relief were enough to change the tide.
“Taylor has been playing really good football,” tight end Logan Thomas said. “In the last two weeks we took two losses, but he didn’t play terrible. Had some turnovers, but that’s not all his fault. … Because Carson was the Week 1 starter, he was kind of the guy that was always running the show, so it was kind of expected if things were to go the way they did.”
BROWNS AND FROWNS
Despite a star-laden roster and high expectations, the Browns missed the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
Obviously, Watson’s lengthy suspension was a major impediment, but the Browns were disappointed they didn’t do more.
“We had our chances, and we didn’t make the most of it,” Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb said. “And here we are. We are who we are.”
There was some progress — just not enough for a team that went 8-9 last season and might not even get there again.
“Super disappointing,” cornerback Greg Newsome III said. “On paper, we have a very, very talented roster, but we obviously we weren’t able to put everything together this season for the second straight year.”
COMMANDERS’ D LETDOWN
Washington’s defense allowed a season-high 37 points in the loss at San Francisco last week, and the 49ers’ 371 yards were the most the unit had given up since Week 6.
Rivera blamed the performance on giving up big plays, and it hurt that safety Kam Curl was out with an ankle injury.
Curl expects to be back to face the Browns, and is confident about what he and his teammates can do to bounce back.
“Just play defense how we play defense,” he said. “If we go out there and play our game, play with our hearts out, I feel like we can do what we’ve got to do to win the game.”
Cleveland’s rushing defense has been sketchy all season, and the Browns’ inability to fix it has fallen on defensive coordinator Joe Woods, whose future appears in doubt.
The Browns have allowed at least 150 yards rushing eight times in the past 12 games.
“Teams start running the ball on us, and we get a high, high number of runs per game,” Woods said. “We just didn’t do a good job.”
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AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report