Coming off an unlikely NFC East title last fall, the Washington Football Team entered the 2021 season with high expectations. After Week 1, those expectations remain, although they've been dampened a bit after the club lost a nailbiter to the Los Angeles Chargers in what was a winnable game.
Next on the schedule is the New York Giants, a Thursday Night Football clash and also Washington's lone divisional game until December. The Giants were blown out by Denver in their opener in what was an all-around ugly effort for Joe Judge's club.
With Washington desperate to avoid an 0-2 hole to begin the season, could Thursday night's game be considered a 'must-win?' That question was asked in a Zoom call to NFL Network's Thursday Night Football crew on Tuesday, with each panelist sharing their respective opinion.
First was former Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas, who pointed to the weak NFC East as a reason why this lone game might not individually be the reason Washington makes or misses the playoffs.
"Every game is a must-win in the NFL, right?" Thomas said. "It's not a must-win from a standing standpoint, obviously, and being in the NFC East, we kind of expect it's not going to be one of the strongest divisions in the NFL this season."
Thomas, who spent much of his likely Hall of Fame career playing for losing teams in Cleveland, made it clear that the mental psyche of beginning the season with two consecutive losses would impact Washington a lot more than anything else.
"When you go down 0-2 in the NFL, there's a mental thing that becomes difficult to overcome because there are 32 teams in the NFL that came out of training camp thinking they were going to have a good season," Thomas said. "If you're sitting at 0-2, all of a sudden, it's a belief issue. It becomes harder to believe in the things that you believed into at the end of training camp that led you to believe you could have a successful season."
Next to answer the question was NFL Network host and analyst Colleen Wolfe, who stressed the importance of Thursday being a divisional game on why it should be considered a must-win.
"It's an important division game, though," Wolfe said. "So, yeah, they do have to win it because the division is it's very winnable. As we know, the Eagles are in first place in the division and they're the only team that won this past week. But both teams absolutely need to avoid an 0-2 start to begin the season."
Wolfe was also quick to point out that the lowly Giants have won five consecutive games against Washington. For Ron Rivera's club, a team looking to defend its NFC East crown, it can't afford to continue to drop games to a team like New York, the only franchise that has not had a winning record at any point in the NFL since 2017.
While Wolfe believes Thursday's game should be considered a must-win for Washington, former Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. does not. Why? After just one week, Washington is already on its second-string quarterback after Ryan Fitzpatrick was placed on Injured Reserve.
But, while Smith didn't categorize the matchup as a must-win for Washington, he believes Rivera's club must "show improvement" from Week 1 in order for the team to continue to believe in itself.
"Ryan Fitzpatrick goes down, he was the general of the offense," Smith said. "Now, he's not and [Taylor] Heinicke is. ... That kind of throws a monkey wrench in [the team's plans] because now your quarterback, who you got in free agency, a guy that you guys statistically, fundamentally said 'this is a guy that speaks our language, speaks our mantra, speaks what we want to be about' and bang, he goes down."
The last one to answer the question was former Cowboys star and Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, who echoed Thomas' thoughts that winning Thursday's game means a lot more for the mental psyche of Washington's players than it truly does in the standings.
"You know, each year is different, but not always in players' head[s]," Irvin said. "Washington, they're thinking 'we went to the playoffs last year, we played the champs [Tampa Bay Buccaneers] pretty tight even with this quarterback, we [can] go into the offseason and we can build on that.' So you got to think that they are looking at this like, 'whoa, they need to win this,' just for their psyche and where you think they would be."
So, what does Rivera think? Washington's head coach said Tuesday that this week's game against the Giants does hold a bit of extra importance.
“Partly because we're 0-1, partly because it is a division game, and partly because we won't play another division game 'til December. So those are [of] importance," Rivera said. "You don't want to go down 0-2 and then have to go to Buffalo and face a very difficult Buffalo football team. What you want to be able to do is go out and play well and win a football game. ... But you know, we have to go out and play our abilities, play to what we're capable of and really play smarter than we did last week."
Since 2007, only 12 teams that began the season with an 0-2 record have made the postseason out of a possible 119. Additionally, all 12 clubs that started 0-2 in the 2020 season -- the first year the NFL added a seventh playoff team in each conference -- missed the postseason.
The math supports that Thursday's game is a must-win for Washington. Rivera understands that and he believes his players do, too.
"I believe they understand that in this world, you only get so many opportunities, and you only get so many that you can kind of let slip," Rivera said Tuesday. "After that, everything else is important. Every one of them is important.”