Washington Football Team wins NFC East, will meet Tampa Bay, Tom Brady in NFL playoffs

Jori Epstein

In October, Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera rang the bell at a Northern Virginia hospital to celebrate completing chemotherapy and proton therapy for the squamous cell cancer he battled during the season.

On Sunday night, Rivera added an NFC East title to his inspiring 2020 season resume as Washington outlasted Philadelphia 20-14 at Lincoln Financial Field.

The victory sealed the postseason bid for 7-9 Washington, which will host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) in the wildcard round of the playoffs on Saturday night (8:15 p.m., ET, NBC). The NFC East title has changed hands for the 16th straight season, Rivera capturing it in his first season taking over a Washington team that went 3-13 a year earlier.

It is Washington's first title since 2015.

Washington receiver Terry McLaurin (17) celebrates with teammates after a touchdown catch against  Philadelphia in the first quarter Sunday.

The Giants (6-10) went to bed disappointed. New York had outlasted the Cowboys (6-10) 23-19 in a Sunday afternoon game at MetLife Stadium, enough to keep the team’s playoff hopes alive in the case Washington lost. When Eagles coach Doug Pederson pulled quarterback Jalen Hurts in the fourth quarter and sent in backup Nate Sudfeld with Philadelphia trailing by 3 (Carson Wentz was a healthy scratch), Giants players didn’t hesitate to question Pederson’s motives.

“I think the Eagles just hate us more than Washington,” Giants receiver Golden Tate tweeted during the fourth quarter. “That’s only thing that could make sense right?”

Even the NBC TV crew openly questioned the move. 

"I could not have done it," analyst Cris Collinsworth said about the QB change. "You have men out there fighting their guts out." 

Pederson said in his postgame press conference the decision to play Sudfeld was his and he was not trying to throw the game. Sudfeld’s playing time, paired with Pederson’s decision to eschew a field goal and go for it on 4th-and-4, down 17-14 with 2:01 to play in the third quarter, perplexed fans.

“Yes, I was coaching to win,” Pederson said “Nate has been here for four years and I felt that he deserved an opportunity to get some snaps. Listen: If there’s anything out there that thinks I was not trying to win the game, (tight end Zach) Ertz was out there, (defensive end) Brandon Graham was out there, (receiver) Darius Slay was out there. All our top guys were still on the field at the end.

“We were going to win the game.”

Sudfeld finished with a 14.6 rating after completing 5 of 12 pass attempts for 32 yards, no touchdowns and an interception in addition to a lost fumble. He also rushed twice for 12 total yards. Hurts completed 7 of 20 attempts for 72 yards and an interception, though he rushed 8 times for 34 yards and two scores.

With the loss, the Eagles dropped to 4-11-1 and rose to the sixth overall selection in the 2021 draft. The Cowboys will pick at 10 and the Giants 11, perks of a division whose 23 combined wins were worst in the NFL.

Six of eight divisions won at least 32 combined games. But questions loom for Philadelphia, including at quarterback, where Wentz’s four-year, $128 million extension runs through 2024. Hurts, the Eagles’ 2020 second-round draft selection, replaced Wentz on Dec. 6 vs., the Packers and never relinquished the job. In twelve-plus games this season, Wentz threw 16 touchdowns to 15 interceptions and fumbled 10 times (four lost).

Washington’s quarterback play Sunday night featured its own ball-security issues, quarterback Alex Smith, throwing two interceptions and having a fumble his team recovered. He completed 22 of 32 attempts for 162 yards and two touchdowns.

Smith’s issues don’t overshadow the remarkable comeback his season, and a postseason advancement, represent.

Smith suffered a gruesome broken leg in 2018 that ultimately required 17 surgeries, an infection risking  his leg and life in the process. His return to play in 2020 far exceeded expectations for the man who wondered if he would walk again.

In seven games, he completed 168 of 252 pass attempts (66.6%) for 1,582 yards, six touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Even Smith, in a postgame interview with “Sunday Night Football” sideline reporter Michele Tafoya, was incredulous. What would he have said had he been told before the season that he’d lead Washington to the division title?

“I wouldn’t have believed you in a million years,” Smith told Tafoya. “Lot to be grateful for, starting with the guys in that locker room. … Excited for them. We had some bumps early and they continued to keep fighting, keep getting better and here we are.

"Excited to go celebrate with them now.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein