Washington’s Taylor Heinicke torched Falcons in last meeting

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons, who are trying to climb to the top of the NFC South, are set to face one of the hottest teams in the NFL.

The Falcons (5-6) will play the Commanders (6-5) at 1 p.m. Sunday at FedEx Field in Maryland.

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The Commanders have won five of their past six games. They defeated the Eagles to end their undefeated season Nov. 14 and followed that with a 23-10 win over the Texans on Sunday.

Taylor Heinicke, who played at Collins Hill High, has been named the starting quarterback for the Commanders. He’s 4-1 as a starter after taking over for Carson Wentz.

“It’s one of those things where he knows where to go with the ball and where it should be, and he just launches it,” Washington coach Ron Rivera told the local media Monday. “He does it in a fashion where he almost expects good things to happen.”

Heinicke has completed 90 of 148 passes (60.8%) for 1,031 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions. He has a passer rating of 81.8.

Washington relies on its rushing attack, which is paced by Antonio Gibson, who played at Eagle’s Landing High, and Brian Robinson. Gibson has rushed 121 times for 444 yards and three touchdowns. Robinson has rushed 108 times for 362 yards and two touchdowns.

“Both good players,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “They’ve started running the ball a lot, and obviously, Heinicke can make big plays; they have a good receiving corps. It’s a good team. It’s a good roster.”

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Also, Curtis Samuel has rushed 24 times for 152 yards and a touchdown.

Washington ranks No. 1 in the league in time of possession, at 32 minutes, 44 seconds per game.

In addition to the rushing attack, wide receiver Terry McLaurin is a key weapon.

McLaurin has 77 catches for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns. He has had three 100-yard games this season.

In the game last season against Atlanta, he caught 6 of 13 targets for 123 yards and two touchdowns.

Washington is anchored by a strong defensive front that features tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen. Defensive end Chase Young also could return to pair with Montez Sweat, who played at Stephenson High.

“They’ve got a million first-round picks up front on the defensive line, and they’re all good players,” Smith said. “So, we’ll have to see if they get Chase Young back. That’s one more good player that they can put out there. It’ll be a fun challenge this time of year.”

Rivera, who was the coach of the Carolina Panthers from 2011-19, believes his team has turned the corner.

“My message was that they are a solid young football team that’s kind of finding their way,” Rivera said. “They are scrappy. They are tough. They are underdogs. They are guys that are striving to be the best.”

Getting over .500 has worked wonders for the Commanders.

“They have the ability to ascend to another level,” Rivera said. “I really think so.”

Last season, the Commanders defeated the Falcons 34-30 on Oct. 3 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to reach 2-2. They went on to finish 7-10.

Heinicke has the Falcons’ attention.

“He can extend plays,” Smith said. “He did a great job; everybody saw that Monday night game (against the Eagles with him) keeping drives alive.”

The Falcons weren’t surprised when the Commanders elected to hitch their wagon to Heinicke, who has been a backup for most of his career.

“Tough player. I’ve got an appreciation for a guy who waited his turn, sat and came back, reminds me of Ryan Fitzpatrick a little bit,” Smith said. “Tougher than hell and not afraid to make any throw. You can see why his teammates love him.”

The Falcons are coming off a game in which they sacked Bears quarterback Justin Fields four times. Heinicke doesn’t run as much but is mobile.

“If you’re not coordinated in your rush game, and you get out of there and you create space, he can make you pay,” Smith said. “He did that to us (last year).”

Falcons vice president of player personnel Kyle Smith was with Washington for 11 seasons before joining the Falcons’ front office in 2020.

“(He) was a big part of that personnel department and some of the stuff they did,” said Arthur Smith, who went to Georgetown Prep and started his NFL career with Washington.

“(It’s a) second home for me,” Smith said. “There are a lot of good memories, working for (legendary Washington coach) Joe Gibbs, very fond memories.”

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Atlanta Falcons 2022 schedule

Sept. 11: Saints 27, Falcons 26

Sept. 18: Rams 31, Falcons 27

Sept. 25 Falcons 27, Seahawks 23

Oct. 2 Falcons 23, Browns 20

Oct. 9 Buccaneers 21, Falcons 15

Oct. 16 Falcons 28, 49ers 14

Oct. 23 Bengals 35, Falcons 17

Oct. 30 Falcons 37, Panthers 34 OT

Nov. 6 Chargers 20, Falcons 17

Nov. 10 Panthers 25, Falcons 15

Nov. 20 Falcons 27, Bears 24

Nov. 27 at Washington, 1 p.m.

Dec. 4 vs. Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

BYE WEEK

Dec. 18 at New Orleans, TBD

Dec. 24 at Baltimore, 1 p.m.

Jan. 1 vs. Arizona, 1 p.m.

Jan. 8 vs. Tampa Bay, TBD