The night of Jan. 9, 2021, changed Taylor Heinicke's life.
Thrust into the starting quarterback spot due to an injury to Alex Smith, Heinicke made his first career postseason start for the Washington Football Team in the club's first playoff game in five years. Washington didn't win, but Heinicke starred, almost leading the Burgundy and Gold to an upset victory over the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This upcoming Sunday will be a full-circle moment for the quarterback, as Heinicke -- now Washington's starter -- will face that same Buccaneers defense he dazzled against 11 months ago.
"That game is probably the reason I'm still here," Heinicke told local media on Wednesday.
In that game, Heinicke threw for over 300 yards and a touchdown -- an impressive performance for someone who was out of football three months prior. But where he excelled most was with his legs and using his athleticism to create and extend plays. Heinicke's biggest moment from the game came on a four-yard touchdown run, where he put his entire body on the line stretching for the pylon.
Although Washington didn't ultimately get the victory, Heinicke left FedExField that night knowing his life had changed forever.
“It was a late-night game. I didn't get home till like 1:30 a.m. or 2 [a.m.] and I was answering hundreds of texts and stuff. I want to say I only got like 45 minutes to sleep that night," he said. "It was exciting, but obviously you wanted to win. Kind of going from where I was to that, it was a really exciting time and I kind of knew that my life kind of changed at that point. It was a very exciting time, but again, wish we won.”
In February, just a few weeks after his epic performance, Heinicke signed a two-year deal to remain with Washington. The contract, one that included guaranteed money, was the first time Heinicke felt he had "two feet in" an NFL organization his entire career.
Heinicke was originally expected to be Washington's backup this season. Yet, on the fourth drive of Washington's season, starter Ryan Fitzpatrick suffered a hip injury, one he still has yet to recover from. Heinicke has been Washington's QB1 since.
It's been an up and down season for Heinicke thus far. He's had his highs, headlined by two-game winning drives against the Giants and Falcons. But he's also had his lows, moments that remind everyone why he was originally out of football to begin with.
But, with Tampa Bay on the horizon, Heinicke took a moment at the podium to reflect on just how different his life is now than it was at this time in 2020.
"I feel like I'm getting better every week and I'm learning something every week. But again, my life has changed dramatically," he said. "I thought I was done with football last year. So since that game until now, made some good money and just feel a lot more comfortable in life. It's a totally different feeling from what I was feeling this point last year.”
Every year is different in the NFL, as players and coaches move around every offseason. However, this Sunday's matchup will provide a lot of familiarity for Heinicke, who's making just his 10th career start, including the postseason.
Tampa Bay returned all 22 starters from its championship team, meaning Heinicke will face several familiar faces he played against last season. Like every team, the Buccaneers are dealing with some injuries and have also signed multiple veterans to bolster its depth. But for the most part, Heinicke will know what to expect.
"They got the same people out there. They have a couple of injuries there in the back end, whether it's corners or safeties," Heinicke said. "We've added a couple of new parts on the offense. But other than that, it's pretty much the same deal. It’s about who goes out there and executes better.”
Additionally, Heinicke said the team has been watching film of that playoff loss this week to prepare for Tampa Bay, as the Buccaneers personnel is largely similar to the group Washington faced in January.
While Heinicke looks back at that January night fondly of his own performance, he's hoping the end result is different this time around.
"It’s actually a good film to watch, obviously it's our offense against their defense," Heinicke said. "We've been watching a good bit and it brings back good memories and stuff. But again, it's a new challenge this week, so hopefully, we can have a better outcome this year, go get a win and go from there."