Previewing Washington Football Team's Week 16 game vs. Carolina Panthers

Ron Rivera spent most of this week downplaying the significance of facing his former team. He admitted he might be more emotional if the...

Ron Rivera spent most of this week downplaying the significance of facing his former team. He admitted he might be more emotional if the game were in Charlotte, or if it was the season opener. He said he was looking forward to seeing some of his former players — including wide receiver Curtis Samuel, tight end Ian Thomas and linebacker Shaq Thompson — but Rivera tried to steer the conversation away from his personal connection to Carolina. He instead harped on the importance of winning to give Washington a chance at securing the NFC East title.

“This is about the organization winning and getting into the playoffs, not Ron Rivera winning and getting revenge,” Rivera said. “That’s the last thing I want this to be. In all honesty, I do owe that franchise a lot. It was my first opportunity as a head coach.”

The Carolina ties run deep in Washington. Rivera’s staff includes 15 assistant coaches and trainers who were with him with the Panthers, including offensive coordinator Scott Turner.

When Rivera was fired last season after the last Panthers-Washington meeting, Turner, who was previously the quarterbacks coach, took over as interim coordinator and play-caller for the Panthers’ final four games.

Carolina was knocked out of playoff contention last week with its loss to the Green Bay Packers and now has nothing to play for but pride and job security. But the Panthers still pose a threat. They lost their last three games by eight points or fewer, a sign to Rivera that “this team isn’t going to roll over” and that Washington’s focus needs to be narrow.

“The truth of the matter is the importance and significance of this game far outweighs anything personal as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

The bad news for Washington: The skill-position woes continue. Wide receiver Terry McLaurin (ankle) did not practice all week and is listed as doubtful. McLaurin first appeared on the injury report in Week 11, and Rivera recently commended him for playing through pain. But if the second-year receiver can’t play Sunday, that would be a big blow to an offense still trying to cobble things together week to week.

The good news for Washington: QB Alex Smith and running back Antonio Gibson are improving. Smith was listed as questionable after taking his first full workout since suffering his injury. Gibson, who has missed the last two games while rehabbing a turf toe injury, is also questionable, and he has continued to increase his workload in practice. Gibson’s return would help Washington exploit a Carolina defense that allows 4.66 yards per carry and gave up 195 rushing yards to the Packers.

This game could be about more than the playoffs. As Washington continues to pan its roster in search of foundational pieces for the future, these last couple of regular season games could be the difference in a player sticking around in 2021 or having to find work elsewhere. There are also more opportunities for players once stashed on the depth chart to prove their value. Think safety Jeremy Reaves, or even rookie linebacker Khaleke Hudson.

“Even guys that are playing on practice squad, as coaches, I like to remind our assistants ‘Don’t forget to get those guys and grab a couple plays from practice,’ ” defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “ ‘Make sure that they understand that they are being watched.’ … I think in doing that, you find out some guys are prepared and they’re ready to go. They get called on and they can perform.”

A Washington run defense that gave up 181 yards to the Seahawks could get a reprieve if Christian McCaffrey can’t go. McCaffrey has been limited to only three games and is doubtful to play Sunday with a thigh injury. Washington has fared better than most teams in trying to contain McCaffrey — his 2.9-yard rushing average against Washington is the lowest among opponents he has faced at least twice in his career — but his impact, when healthy, is undeniable. Last season he accounted for a league-high 40.2 percent of his team’s offense. In his absence, Mike Davis has emerged as the team’s leading back with 614 rushing yards and 4.1 yards per rushing attempt.

The top two candidates for defensive rookie of the year: The shoo-in (Washington defensive end Chase Young) and the surprise (Carolina safety Jeremy Chinn). Chinn contrasts with Young, the No. 2 overall pick and strong betting favorite for the award, because he was less coveted, drafted last in the second round out of Southern Illinois. Last season Chinn finished 17th for defensive player of the year — in the Football Championship Subdivision.

Chinn, 22, broke out in Week 12, scoring defensive touchdowns on back to back plays against the Minnesota Vikings. He has put together a solid rookie campaign — 61 tackles, two forced fumbles, an interception — and Rivera told reporters from Charlotte “I don’t disagree with” people pushing Chinn for DROY.

“He has an opportunity to be it,” Rivera said. “He’s had a good start to his career.”

If you’re a Washington fan, here’s a cheering cheat sheet: Baltimore and Dallas. The short version:

  1. If the New York Giants lose at Baltimore on Sunday, and Washington beats Carolina, Washington wins the division for the first time since 2015.
  2. If Dallas beats Philadelphia on Sunday, the Eagles are eliminated from the playoff race, alleviating at least some pressure from Washington’s trip to the City of Brotherly Love in Week 17.

The worst case scenario for Washington fans is a loss to Carolina and a Giants win because the Giants would move into first place. But in general, it’s easiest to focus on Baltimore and Dallas.

Injury report: Washington may not declare a starting quarterback before Sunday. Smith’s progress in recovering from a calf strain offers optimism he might be able to go, but Dwayne Haskins prepared this week as if he were the starter — just in case. Linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis (ankle) is also questionable, but that position received good news this week: Cole Holcomb is back after missing a game with a concussion, and Mychal Kendricks was signed off Seattle’s practice squad for depth. At running back, if Gibson (questionable with turf toe) can’t go, veteran Lamar Miller might see his first game action since clearing his pre-entry coronavirus testing.

In addition to McCaffrey, Carolina could also be without cornerback Troy Pride Jr. (hip) and tackle Russell Okung (calf), both of whom were listed as doubtful. Defensive end Brian Burns, who leads Carolina with eight sacks, is questionable with a knee injury, but Panthers Coach Matt Rhule said Burns is “more than likely out.” Fellow defensive end Austin Larkin (shoulder), defensive tackle Bravvion Roy (knee) and linebacker Adarius Taylor (ankle) are also questionable.

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Newsrust: Previewing Washington Football Team's Week 16 game vs. Carolina Panthers
Previewing Washington Football Team's Week 16 game vs. Carolina Panthers
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