SANTA CLARA, Calif. — After throwing an interception in the fourth quarter, Taylor Heinicke stormed to the sideline and was met by coach Ron Rivera. The conversation between the two lasted just seconds, but it was long enough for the Washington Commanders quarterback to slam his helmet out of frustration.
Rivera delivered the news that Heinicke had worked so hard to avoid: Carson Wentz was coming in.
Wentz replaced Heinicke with just over nine minutes left, but the quarterback change didn’t ultimately make a difference in Saturday’s 37-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Still, Rivera’s decision to turn back to Wentz — Washington’s high-profile offseason acquisition — now puts the Commanders at a crossroads with only two games left this season. Did Heinicke lose his starting job permanently? Or did Rivera just turn to Wentz in an attempt to spark an offense that had gone cold?
Whatever Rivera decides could very well determine Washington’s playoff fate.
Against the 49ers (11-4), Heinicke played well — until he didn’t. The quarterback committed turnovers on back-to-back drives that not only helped extend San Francisco’s lead, but also forced Rivera’s hand to go to Wentz.
Both mistakes gave the 49ers the ball inside the red zone, with Heinicke first losing a fumble at the 12-yard line after a Nick Bosa sack and then later throwing an interception at the 22-yard line to safety Jimmie Ward.
When Wentz checked in, the Commanders faced a 30-14 deficit — which could have been worse if the Commanders’ defense did not hold San Francisco to field goals on Heinicke’s pair of turnovers. In his first action since Oct. 13, the veteran was sharp off the bench. Wentz led the Commanders on an 11-play, 82-yard drive that cultivated with a 20-yard touchdown strike to Curtis Samuel.
Washington even had the opportunity to cut San Francisco’s lead to a one-score game, though Wentz was sacked by two defenders.
No matter which quarterback was under center, the Commanders had trouble stopping San Francisco’s hellacious front. Bosa, in particular, had a monster day as he recorded six tackles, four quarterback hits, two sacks and a forced fumble.
The Commanders fell to 7-7-1 and now must likely beat both the Cleveland Browns and the Dallas Cowboys to make the playoffs.
The question now is whether the Commanders go with Wentz or Heinicke. On Saturday, Wentz threw for 122 yards on 12 of 16 passing in his relief appearance, while Heinicke went 13 of 18 for 166 yards. Both signal-callers each threw for one touchdown.
Prior to Saturday’s contest, Rivera hinted that he could make a quarterback change if Washington’s offense did not improve. In last week’s loss to the Giants, the Commanders mustered just 12 points and the offense came up short in the red zone by converting a touchdown only once on three chances. Wentz, too, had been waiting in the wings ever since he was activated to the roster on Dec. 12 — almost two months since he fractured his finger in a Week 6 win over the Chicago Bears.
In Wentz’s absence, Heinicke had played well enough to secure the starting gig. The 29-year-old helped the Commanders get back into playoff contention by winning five of six. And though his stats weren’t spectacular, Heinicke helped the Commanders establish a run-first identity.
After losing to the 49ers, Heinicke’s good work during that previous stretch may no longer matter. The Commanders are still technically in the playoff hunt as they remain the seventh seed — thanks to receiving a pre-Christmas gift earlier in the afternoon when the New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions all lost in the early window.
But ultimately a win would dramatically hold Washington’s postseason chances. And in their bid to upset the 49ers, the Commanders knew they would have to do at least two things: Keep San Francisco’s creative offense off the field for as long as possible and somehow crack the 49ers’ top-ranked defense.
In their approach to the latter, the Commanders came out determined to run the ball. Earlier in the week, offensive coordinator Scott Turner lamented that rookie running back Brian Robinson Jr. received only 12 carries in last week’s loss to the New York Giants. And this time around, Turner made sure to feed the powerful third-rounder.
But the Commanders weren’t able to crack San Francisco’s loaded front. Robinson and Antonio Gibson repeatedly ran into nine-man boxes, and Washington’s offensive line didn’t do the group any favors by committing a series of penalties that put the team behind the chains.
The Commanders finished with just 79 rushing yards on 34 attempts. Though the teams were tied 7-7 at halftime, San Francisco’s offense exploded in the second half — helped in part by two George Kittle touchdowns.
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