Everyone knows appearances can be deceiving. We look at the NFL schedule when it’s released and we circle dates that figure to have the most significance.
We note the appointments with division foes, the match-ups against high-profile teams and the contests slated for prime-time broadcasts. Adjustments can and will be made when some teams perform worse than expected as the season progresses, but at least a handful of matchups always remain in the low-anticipation, high-yawn category as kickoff draws near.
The San Francisco 49ers, Sunday’s visitors at FedEx Field, were the perfect example. Arguably the least-attractive home date before the season began, the Niners’ 0-5 record only added to the blasé feelings they generated. With Washington coming off a bye, feeling good about being 2-2 and looking forward to Monday night’s tilt against Philadelphia, San Francisco should’ve been a gimme.
But in actuality, this was a big game, as big as they come. It would’ve been even bigger if Washington didn’t hold on for a 26-24 victory.
It’s hard to fathom the damage that would’ve resulted from falling to a winless team, at home, while trying to establish playoff bona fides, with back-to-back division opponents up next. A defeat under those circumstances would’ve been a devastating blow to all the progress Washington has exhibited thus far.
Nothing was further from our minds after quarterback Kirk Cousins engineered three scoring drives for a 17-0 lead with 1:51 left before halftime. San Francisco had gained just 64 yards to that point and controlled possession for only 7 minutes.
Washington finished with some gaudy numbers as a team (419 yards of offense) and individually (Cousins’ 330 passing yards and halfback Chris Thompson’s 105 receiving yards). The defense recorded three sacks and held the Niners to 85 yards rushing. But just when thoughts of a competitive affair were fading away, San Francisco charged back.
After the game, after the 49ers scored 17 consecutive points to forge a tie, Washington players said they weren’t surprised. They said San Francisco was “a good team” despite its record and they always expected a battle.”
“What I’ve learned is the team with the worst record can beat the team with the best record,” said Washington tight end Vernon Davis, whose 51-yard reception set up Kirk Cousins’ touchdown on a read-option run for a 26-17 lead with 4:54 left in the game. “It’s hard for any team to keep its focus up 17-0 or 20-0. Individually it’s hard. But that being said, we kept competing and didn’t let up.”
Given D.C. sports’ recent history – including Thursday’s still-fresh events on South Capitol Street, the doubt at FedEx Field was palpable. Injuries had depleted Washington’s secondary and the 49ers began to capitalize after quarterback C.J. Beathard replaced Brian Hoyer late in the first half. Beathard led back-to-back scoring drives sandwiched by intermission and the Niners tied the game with 3:01 left in the third after a Davis fumble was returned to the 1-yard line.
“I knew after that it was going to be a dog fight,” coach Jay Gruden said. “I mentioned before they have a lot of good players. I think it’s their fifth game in row they’ve lost by three or less points to hats off to them. They’re well coached and played hard, but fortunately we came out with the victory.”
They pulled it out on the strength of 16- and 9-play drives on their next two possessions, consuming more than 12 minutes of the clock. Dustin Hopkins’ missed extra-point made for a tense ending when San Francisco gained possession with 52 seconds remaining, but the defense held, aided by a pass interference call on former Washington wideout Pierre Garcon, pushing the Niners out of field-goal range.
Teams that aspire to be good and proceed to great can’t afford home losses to the likes of San Francisco. No matter how close the Niners have come to winning a couple of times, Washington couldn’t become their first victim. That made this an important contest coming in, even if we didn’t realize it.
Washington didn’t take San Francisco lightly, but it’s understandable if juices flow more on Monday Night Football against Philadelphia and the 4:25 p.m., most-of-the-nation broadcast with Dallas in two weeks. The stakes in those contests are easy to see, especially since Philly at FedEx Field in Week 1.
“Coach told us to start thinking about Philadelphia as soon we get out of the shower,” Thompson said.
The Eagles and Cowboys will have everyone’s full attention. If the same wasn’t true for the 49ers, Sunday’s chain-of-events delivered a powerful and important reminder.
They’re all big games for Washington.
And winning is the only way to make future games even bigger.
— Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.