While the Washington Commanders compete in the winningest division in the NFL, the Atlanta Falcons play in the weakest division.
When the teams meet Sunday in Landover, Md., however, they enter in similar circumstances. While Washington (6-5) is a half game out of a wildcard slot in the NFC, Atlanta (5-6) is a half-game behind first-place Tampa Bay in the NFC South.
Both teams are anxious for success. Atlanta is coming off four straight losing seasons. Washington is on a run of five consecutive losing years.
“It’s a big game for both teams,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “When you get into the holiday season you want to be in games that matter.”
The Commanders are on a high having won five of their last six. Four of the wins have been with Taylor Heinicke at quarterback, though the real catalyst for the success has been Washington’s defense.
Linemen Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Montez Sweat — all first-round picks — are each producing at a Pro Bowl level, combining for 19 sacks.
And this week, the Commanders activated defensive end Chase Young, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 draft, from the physically unable to perform list.
Young, who missed 19 games after sustaining a torn ACL just over a year ago, isn’t certain to play on Sunday. Coach Ron Rivera said Young will be evaluated this week at practice to determine his availability.
“We have to slowly integrate him into it, get him more acclimated to it and when he’s ready to roll, give him an opportunity to gradually increase that number of plays,” Rivera said.
In a 23-10 win last Sunday, Washington dominated host Houston in the first half, getting an early pick-6 from Kendall Fuller and holding the Texans to 5 yards.
On Wednesday, the Commanders designated quarterback Carson Wentz for a return to practice, though he will not be activated this week. Wentz suffered a broken finger in a Week 6 win over Chicago and underwent surgery on Oct. 17.
The Falcons are coming off a 27-24 win at home over the Bears. Atlanta was down 17-7 in the second quarter before Cordarrelle Patterson sparked the rally with a 103-yard kickoff return touchdown.
Marcus Mariota ran for a touchdown and threw for another score as the Falcons won by a margin of four or fewer points for the fourth time this year.
The metrics don’t favor Atlanta. While its defense ranks 30th in the NFL, giving up 389.4 yards per game, the offense ranks No. 26, gaining an average of 313.8 yards.
The Falcons do well in the running game, as they rank No. 3, averaging 159.4 yards per game on the ground using a committee approach with Tyler Allgeier (498 yards, 4.5 per carry), Patterson (454 yards, 5.3 per carry) and Caleb Huntley (335 yards, 4.8 per carry).
The injury news was not good for Atlanta on Wednesday. Tight end Kyle Pitts and defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham, both with knee injuries, will need surgery and will miss at least four games each.
For Washington, cornerback Benjamin St-Juste (ankle) missed practice on Wednesday and linebacker Cole Holcomb (foot), who has been out for a month, remained sidelined.
Wahington rallied at Atlanta in Week 4 last year as Heinicke threw two touchdown passes in the final four minutes of a 34-30 victory.