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Rivera said Washington would be at its best late, and he’s right

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He got testy. He got feisty. He resembled a man that just didn't understand why people continued to question him. 

Ron Rivera had a tough first six weeks as the head coach in Washington, but in the six weeks since, the coach is delivering exactly what he expected.

Before the season started Rivera explained that his team would be much better later in the year than early. Sure enough, they were bad early. Occasionally very bad. But there were young players all over the field learning the system and the expectations. 

Fast forward a few months, and all of a sudden, this team is playing inspired football. 

How on earth does a 4-7 team get down 14-0 on the road to an undefeated Steelers team, and come all the way back for the win? How does that happen?

It comes with a stifling defensive effort. After spotting Pittsburgh the two-touchdown lead, Washington proceeded to outscore the Steelers 23-3. 

"They played their asses off," Rivera said of his team after the game. 

And he was right. 

The defensive line dominated, limiting the Steelers to fewer than 30 yards rushing and disrupting the timing of Pittsburgh's passing offense. The sack total wasn't there, but it didn't matter. 

"We didn't get a sack today, but our defensive line dominated," Young said after the game. 

Young was also crucial on an early goal-line stand, making a flying tackle off the edge on fourth down. Washington's defense bent - but didn't break - and delivered a huge win. 

 

The offense did their part too - particularly J.D. McKissic, Logan Thomas and Cam Sims. 

Read those names again. They're not high priced free agents. Sims and McKissic went undrafted. Thomas was a fourth-round pick, as a quarterback, and now plays tight end. 

That's building a team. 

With all the young talent on the field for Washington, ironically, it's a 36-year-old that is at the center of Washington's second half resurgence. Alex Smith, the story is incredible, but the on-field play is even more impressive. 

On Monday in Pittsburgh, Smith completed 67% of his passes for nearly 300 yards and a touchdown. He got beat up early and often, but stood in and engineered the comeback. 

For weeks now folks have suggested that Smith's comeback from 17 surgeries to repair his broken and infected leg back in 2018 would eventually become a Disney movie. The question is how does the movie end. Well, a win over the undefeated Steelers would make for a hell of a finish. 

But it's not the end. At all. 

Washington has four games left, is tied with the Giants for first place in the NFC East, and is actually on the edge of competing for the third Wild Card spot in the conference. 

Nothing is over, at all, and it's largely because of Washington's incredible performance against the Steelers. 

Before Monday's game, Rivera had a career 24-17 record in December. That means Rivera wins roughly 60 percent of his games in December, when the games mean the most, after his teams get to build all season and push for meaningful football.

When it matters most, in January. 

It's no sure thing Washington will play in January, but Monday's win was a huge step towards it. 

Monday's win was a huge step for Washington's young players and for Rivera's tenure in Washington. 

And it was a huge win just for Rivera, the coach and the person, who's only about six weeks removed from chemo and radiation treatments. 

That was a signature win. That was a huge win. And for Rivera, that was the plan all along.