The loss was much like others for Washington this season: a train wreck of a first half, an impressive second half and as many positive plays as costly mistakes. The penalty by Young wasn’t the sole reason for Washington’s loss; it was merely last on a long list of self-inflicted wounds.
“I thought we played well enough to win,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “It’s just unfortunate it didn’t work out that way. Like I told the guys, we left nine points out on the field and we gave them three. You can’t play against two teams on Sunday — them and us. And sometimes we do ourselves in by some of the mistakes we make.”
Washington tied the score at 27 to give Detroit 16 seconds to try to win it before the game would go into overtime, and the Lions nearly did on a deep pass along the left sideline. But after he overthrew Quintez Cephus, Matthew Stafford was pushed to the ground by Young, and the roughing-the-passer penalty gave Detroit a free first down and moved it 15 yards closer to field goal range.
After Stafford’s quick completion to Marvin Jones Jr., Matt Prater nailed the long kick for the win as the clock expired.
The loss is crushing for Washington’s playoff hopes, minimal as they may have been, but it showed the resolve of its players — especially its quarterback. Smith had career highs in completions (38), passing attempts (55) and passing yards (390); completed 69 percent of his passes; spread the ball to eight different receivers; and, for the first time in his career, had back-to-back 300-yard games. More significant, he turned around an offense that sputtered in the first half.
“I think that the scary part was how normal it felt,” Smith said. “It felt really good; it felt really normal and a little bit of I got to pinch myself of how lucky I am to feel that way.”
The game’s opening sequence was a snapshot of Washington’s greatest frustrations this season. Smith led the offense to the Detroit 14-yard line after completing 22- and 19-yard passes to Isaiah Wright and Terry McLaurin scrambling for five yards himself and turning to his backs to carry the rest.
But a reverse to J.D. McKissic was blown up and resulted in a loss of 10 yards. And then Smith was sacked for a loss of 14 yards. Washington not only lost its chance to finally score a touchdown on its first possession, but the sack took it out of field goal range.
Detroit needed only five plays and 1:52 to score on its opening drive. After the Lions picked up 37 rushing yards, Stafford found wide receiver Marvin Hall, who sped past cornerback Kendall Fuller for a 55-yard touchdown.
Fuller hadn’t allowed a single touchdown in coverage this season, according to Pro Football Focus. Two drives later, he was involved in another long passing touchdown, though it’s unclear whether it was he or cornerback Jimmy Moreland who was at fault when Stafford found Jones along the left sideline for a 27-yard score.
While Detroit moved the ball seemingly with ease around Washington’s defense, Washington’s offense resorted to short passes and handoffs for much of the first half. Although there were glimmers of hope that Smith might stabilize the offense, Washington’s first half exposed a habit of falling apart late in drives. Washington ran 39 plays and five complete drives in that span, but it came away with only three points. In addition to the negative plays on the opening drive, Dustin Hopkins missed a 43-yard field goal on another drive and McLaurin fumbled to end another. All the while, Detroit went on three scoring drives, with a field goal adding to its two passing touchdowns.
“It’s never usually one thing,” Smith said. “It’s 100 little things that add up, and I think we all had them and we can all be just a little better in different areas, and often times that’s what turns the tide.”
Detroit opened the second half with a touchdown to expand its lead to 24-3, but Smith came out firing, quickly processing what the defense gave him and picking up five first downs while spraying passes to both his receivers and backs. McKissic capped the 11-play, 82-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown run.
Washington’s defense forced a three-and-out on Detroit’s subsequent drive, and Smith again led an 11-play drive that spanned 84 yards, completing passes of 19, 14, 11 and 13 yards before rookie back Antonio Gibson marched into the end zone for a two-yard touchdown.
As the offense rolled, the defense followed. On a third and seven, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio called a zone blitz with rookie safety Kam Curl, who sacked Stafford for a loss of nine yards. Smith took over and this time needed only six plays to lead Washington to the end zone, with 23- and 27-yard completions before Gibson scored his second rushing touchdown, this one five yards.
24-24 with about six minutes remaining.
Detroit reclaimed its lead with a field goal, giving Smith a chance to lead the game-winning drive. Starting at its own 11-yard line with 2:33 remaining, Washington executed an often mind-boggling two-minute drill that actually led to points. In the 17 plays, there was a questionable pass interference call on Detroit, a silly delay-of-game penalty on Washington, a 26-yard pass to McLaurin and eventually a 41-yard field goal by Hopkins that left only 16 seconds for Detroit to try to win it before the game headed for overtime.
Stafford nearly did it with his deep pass attempt to Cephus, but the penalty by Chase Young gave him and Detroit’s offense an extra boost with 15 free yards.
“I was going hard,” Young said postgame, after asking to speak to reporters so he could own his mistake. “It was a split decision whether to go or stop, and I just went. Rookie mistake. It happens.”
Stafford connected with Jones to get another nine yards, and Prater booted the game-winner seconds later.
“[Young] didn’t lose us the game, I promise you that,” veteran defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “… There were too many things that happened where we shouldn’t have been in that situation. I feel for him because I know people are going to try to put this game on him, and it’s not on him.”
Despite the bitter ending and the fall to 2-7 on the season, Washington discovered what so few expected at the outset of the season. Smith, the player so many counted out, is back.
“Every day I think about the things that he’s done and where he is today,” Rivera said. “It’s a heck of a story. But to be honest with you, the thing I’m really pleased with is the way he’s playing. When you get that kind of play from the quarterback, it shows the development of the other guys around him.”