The veteran NFL coach was convinced there were good pieces in place in his third season in charge of Washington's football operations. He sensed a turnaround was possible.
“We had a chance to beat Tennessee, and we didn’t,” Rivera said. “I wanted to throw up after that. We could have beat Minnesota. My stomach turned."
The Commanders have not lost since that stomach-turning defeat to the Vikings, winning their next three and tying the New York Giants on Sunday to get to their bye week at 7-5-1 and very much in the hunt for an NFC wild-card spot.
Starting slow and heating up is a familiar script for Rivera-coached teams going back to his time with Carolina, and a return to the playoffs is possible if the trend continues.
Rivera has drawn parallels between now and his third season with the Panthers, and while this isn't as impressive as the eight-game winning streak in 2013 it's the product of a lot of things going right when it matters.
“It’s interesting because going back and looking in my past for nine seasons in one spot, we never had the same secondary, and so defensively we were always scrambling to put it together,” Rivera said. "Offensively, we never really truly had a set wide receiver core, but the one constant we always had was we were very good run defenders, and we were very good run offenses. And as everything else caught up to that, then it really kind of comes together.”
The defense has come together so well after a rough start that Chase Young is being held back from returning until he's fully healthy more than a year since surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee. The unit ranks sixth in the league — up from 23rd four weeks into the season.
“With the way we’re playing right now and, we’re playing pretty well on the defensive front, the need to get him on the field hasn’t been that you’ve got to have him out there (like) we need — it was a must,” Rivera said Monday. “Because our guys are playing well, we can get him back when he’s 100% ready to roll. And that’s the biggest thing. We don’t want to put him out there when he is not ready.”
There's also no reason to rush previous starter Carson Wentz back at quarterback. Taylor Heinicke is 5-1-1 since taking over, and even with the offense sputtering at times, he does what the Commanders need to manager their ball-control offense that leans heavily on the run and leads the league in time of possession.
Rivera squashed any suggestion of being tempted to go back to Wentz over Heinicke.
“This is who we are,” Rivera said. “We’re running the ball right now. We’re controlling the time of possession. We’re keeping our defense fresh. There’s some things obviously that could help. I think right now for where we are and who we are, I think we’re in a good spot.”
More than anything, the Commanders have a good chance at making the playoffs with four games left: against the Giants in prime time on Dec. 18, at San Francisco on Christmas Eve, home against the Cleveland Browns on New Year's Day and their regular-season finale against the Dallas Cowboys.
Washington is unbeaten in two night games so far this season and gets to have this next one at home after the bye.
“This is about as big a stage we’ve been on since the Monday night game or the Thursday night game we played,” Rivera said. “I’m pretty fired up for our guys. I really am, just because we have guys that deserve some exposure."
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Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press