Two weeks ago, during the Washington Football Team's Week 9 bye, any thought of the Burgundy and Gold making the playoffs this season was an extreme stretch. The club had lost four straight games and sat in the basement of the NFC East with a 2-6 record.
Yet, Washington has come out of the bye a completely new team. Ron Rivera's club has won two straight games over the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers and is now just one game back of the final NFC Wild Card spot.
Here's the reality: a playoff berth is no longer a longshot, but rather a realistic possibility.
Speaking with local media on Monday, head coach Ron Rivera said the team can "absolutely" use the final NFC Wild Card spot as a chasing mark for the remainder of the season.
"Absolutely, we can," Rivera said, before later adding "that's the carrot."
Through 11 weeks of the season, there are five NFC teams with five victories, including the Vikings and Saints, who currently sit in the final two playoff spots in the conference. Behind Minnesota and New Orleans are the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles and Carolina, all with five wins, followed by Washington and the Atlanta Falcons with four.
Washington currently holds the tiebreaker over the Falcons and Panthers due to head-to-head wins and can do the same with victories over the Eagles later in the year. This race is far, far from over. WFT does have a home loss to the Saints, which hurts in any tiebreaking scenario with them.
While a Wild Card berth would certainly be an accomplishment for Washington given its early-season struggles, Rivera believes the team could also enter the 2021 postseason a different way, too.
"We can also use the division, because if we're fortunate enough to take care of our business and get to the second week of December where we play five straight division games, we have a chance," Rivera said.
As it stands now, Washington is currently three games behind the Dallas Cowboys, who sit at 7-3, for the division lead. Behind the Cowboys are the Eagles, who are 5-6 and winners of three of their last four.
But, Washington still has both games against Dallas and Philadelphia remaining on its schedule, with all four of those games coming in a row from Weeks 14-17. Then, Washington closes its regular season with an away contest in New York against the Giants.
With five division games still to go, a lot can change between now and the end of the season. And, if Washington is able to defeat both Seattle, a slumping team right now, and Las Vegas, a club entirely in disarray, things will get plenty interesting entering that five-game divisional stretch.
"Remember, if you're going to win the division, you have to control it," Rivera said. "We'll have an opportunity if we continue to play well and give ourselves that opportunity to get to the second week of December and see what happens."
While winning the NFC East would be the preferable way for Washington to make the postseason for Rivera, the head coach ultimately cares more about simply getting in than how it happens. Because once the playoffs are set, everyone's record is back to 0-0. It's an even playing surface from that point on.
"At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how you get in," Rivera said. "Just ask Tampa Bay. They were the Wild Card [and won the Super Bowl]. All we have to do is get in and we'll see what happens."