Commanders gearing up for ‘playoff atmosphere’ against Giants, get healthier after bye week

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Just before they broke for the bye week, Ron Rivera shifted the Washington Commanders’ schedule so that players would have an extra day of rest. But when he returned to the team’s facility Monday, the planned day off for players, the coach was pleased to see that more than half of the team came in anyway.

By the following day, when the rest of the team gathered for a meeting and light walkthrough, Rivera said he could tell that they were “pretty relaxed” and ready to gear up for a pivotal stretch run.

“Their attitude seems to be the right type of attitude,” Rivera said. 

Rivera said he sees Washington’s final four games as a “playoff atmosphere,” and Sunday’s prime-time affair against the New York Giants figures to be especially crucial toward the Commanders’ postseason chances. According to Football Outsiders, the Commanders would have an 86% chance of making the playoffs if they beat the Giants this weekend — and only a 28% shot if they lose. Both teams are 7-5-1 after tying earlier this month. 

With so much riding on one game, the Commanders — the sixth-seed in the NFC — could use all the help they can get. That’s why the bye week arguably came at the right time for Washington as a number of injured players made strides in their recovery.

Rivera said cornerback Benjamin St-Juste (ankle) is “progressing in the right direction” after missing the last two games. The coach also expressed optimism for guard Trai Turner (knee/ankle) and pass-rusher Chase Young (knee), the latter of whom has yet to play this season. 

Defensive ends Montez Sweat and James Smith-Williams, meanwhile, are still in concussion protocol, but Rivera said the players should be able to practice this week. Rivera also revealed that linebacker Jamin Davis underwent thumb surgery during the bye week, but will be ready to face the Giants. 

“To be two wins above .500, that this is an opportunity and we’ve gotta focus in on,” Rivera said.

The area most in flux for Washington could be the offensive line. Sam Cosmi, a tackle who started last game at right guard in place of an injured Turner, suffered an ankle injury and didn’t finish the contest. Washington also lost Tyler Larsen to a season-ending knee injury, and the Commanders have multiple options they could use at his position. Veteran Nick Martin filled in for Larsen earlier this month, though guard Wes Schweitzer started at center in Week 3 against Philadelphia. 

No matter the Commanders’ injury situation, though, Rivera said the priority for Sunday’s rematch is to better contain Giants quarterback Daniel Jones. The fourth-year signal-caller again hurt Washington on the ground by rushing for 71 yards on 12 attempts. Jones was also particularly accurate in the first meeting, completing 80% (25 of 31) of his passes. 

Jones’ accuracy led Washington to bench seventh-rounder Christian Holmes for veteran Danny Johnson. The switch seemed to help the Commanders late, but ideally, those two wouldn’t have seen the field at all if St-Juste was healthy. 

The second-year corner has been battling a mid-to-high ankle sprain. But before the injury, St-Juste emerged as a reliable starter on the outside after the Commanders benched — and then traded — William Jackson III.  Jackson was benched in Week 5 and traded in November.

“He had a good day of treatment and work (Tuesday) so that was a huge plus from what I was told,” Rivera said of St-Juste. “We’ll see how it goes.”

Sunday’s contest is just as important for the Giants. Football Outsiders puts the Giants’ odds of making the postseason at 90% if New York beats Washington — and 31% with a loss. And unlike Washington, the Giants weren’t off over the weekend: They suffered a blowout loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

No wonder the NFL flexed the matchup to “Sunday Night Football.” 

“This is the most important game we will play as of now and a big reason is because it’s the one we’re about to play,” Rivera said. “So we will try to keep our focus solely on that.”

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