Sixteen players have been ruled out or are listed as questionable for Sunday. But it’s not all bad news, not for Washington, anyway. Quarterback Alex Smith was listed as questionable because of his calf strain, but he came out of Friday’s practice feeling good and, as of Saturday afternoon, is expected to start, a person familiar with the situation said. His final status, however, will depend on how he feels Sunday morning before the game.

Smith was limited in practice throughout the week but unlike last week, when he came out of his first practice since suffering the injury experiencing a bit of soreness, he’s said to have felt good Saturday when the team held its morning walk-through and there is “a lot of optimism” from the team that Smith is healthy enough to return. Taylor Heinicke is set to be his backup, though he would be called upon to start if Smith is unable to go.

Running back Antonio Gibson, also listed as questionable because of turf toe, also appears to be on track to play, the person familiar with the matter added. Coach Ron Rivera had said earlier in the week that Gibson was held out of practice primarily to allow his toe extra rest since he played against the Carolina Panthers last Sunday.

If Gibson can’t play, Lamar Miller is likely to get his first action with Washington, joining J.D. McKissic and Peyton Barber in the backfield mix.

Receiver Terry McLaurin is also questionable and his status is, as of Saturday, a toss-up. McLaurin is dealing with a high ankle sprain, and playing means doing it through considerable discomfort. So does he go Sunday, and risk further injury that could keep him out of a potential playoff game, or does he wait another week and hope Washington can clinch without him?

If McLaurin is a no-go, Washington will rely on a young receiving corps that features Cam Sims, Steven Sims Jr., Robert Foster and rookies Antonio Gandy-Golden and Isaiah Wright. Dontrelle Inman will likely be elevated from the practice squad for depth.

Washington also listed linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis (ankle) as questionable and ruled out Thomas Davis (knee) for what would’ve been the last regular season game of his career. Davis has said he intends to retire after this season.

Even more good news for Washington: It won’t have to contend with some of the Eagles’ biggest troublemakers. Their leading rusher (Miles Sanders), most productive tight end (Dallas Goedert), two starting defensive linemen (Derek Barnett and Fletcher Cox), starting left tackle (Jordan Mailata) and veteran wide receiver DeSean Jackson are out Sunday — among others.

Rounding out the list of 10 players Philadelphia ruled out are linebackers Shaun Bradley (neck) and Duke Riley (biceps), who were placed on injured reserve; tight end Richard Rodgers (ankle); and safety Jalen Mills, who is on the covid-19 reserve list. Cornerback Michael Jacquet (calf) was listed as questionable.

The Eagles were booted from playoff contention in Week 16, but their plan of “going out here to mess up some dreams,” as cornerback Darius Slay put it, will be difficult to accomplish. And the biggest loss for the Eagles could be Sanders.

The second-year running back totaled 867 rushing yards and six touchdowns to help the Eagles rank second in rushing average at 5.10 yards per carry. Washington’s run defense has been one of its most inconsistent units, and over the past three games it has given up an average of 134 yards. Sanders sitting out is a gift.

Out (covid-19 reserve list)

The rest of the NFC East will be pulling for Philadelphia. Not only is Washington’s first playoff appearance in five years on the line, but so are the playoff hopes of the Cowboys or the Giants. A win by Washington ends it all quickly and cleanly; it will get the No. 4 seed as the NFC East winner, and the other teams will begin planning for next season. If Washington loses, it will be eliminated, and the division winner will be the victor of Sunday afternoon’s matchup between Dallas and New York. If those teams tie and Washington loses, the Cowboys take the NFC East.

One guarantee: Whichever team wins the division will be the fifth team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to go to the playoffs with a losing record, joining the 1982 Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns (both finished 4-5 in a strike-shortened season with expanded playoffs), the 2010 Seattle Seahawks (7-9) and the 2014 Carolina Panthers (7-8-1).

“I don’t want this to be looked at any other way other than this: What we did, we accomplished a lot,” Rivera said. “ … This, to me, is house money. That’s the way I’m going to look at it. I want our guys to understand we came a long way. We did. Despite everything that happened in 2020, this football team has come a long way. Can we go further? I hope so. I really do.”

The second Washington-Philadelphia matchup of the season will look a lot different from the first, a 27-17 Washington victory back in Week 1. Dwayne Haskins is gone, and Carson Wentz has been benched. Washington still must decide its starter at quarterback, but its defense has prepared for Jalen Hurts, the Eagles rookie who has averaged 282.3 passing yards and 79.3 rushing yards in three starts.

“Any time you play against a mobile quarterback, it always helps that you’ve done it before,” Washington defensive line coach Sam Mills III said. “We’ve played against some of the best this year so far. It’ll be another good test for us to see our growth. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

Washington is the only team in the NFL that has not scored on its opening possession. This is, in the words of some players, a “second-half team.” Washington has often dug itself a hole during the first two quarters and tried to climb out of it in the final two. It has the league’s third-worst first-half scoring differential (minus-106 points) but the best second-half scoring differential (plus-106).

Its issues aren’t the result of a complete void in production, though. Typically it has been an inability to finish drives, or errors on critical plays.

“Or everybody is doing the right thing and one guy is not,” offensive coordinator Scott Turner said. “Sometimes I’ll call a play and [the defense will] have a good play for it, and it stops the drive. I wish it were one thing you could point to. It’s not. It’s been a variety of different things. … Obviously it’s something that we have to figure out. It’s Week 17, and now more than ever would be the time that we need to go play fast and start fast.”

For all the warts of both teams, this game could be decided by one thing: ball security. Both teams rank among the most turnover-prone in the league, and that has cost them games. Washington is 0-7 in games in which it had a negative turnover differential, and Washington’s opponents have scored 88 points off takeaways.

Having Smith back could improve that. The “game manager” label carries a negative connotation, but Smith is one of the NFL’s best at protecting the ball. In his five starts this season, Washington turned the ball over four times. When he was out over the past two weeks, Washington had six turnovers.

Only one team has given up more plays of 40-plus yards than Washington (16): the Eagles (17). Over the past two weeks alone, Philadelphia allowed a league-high six plays of 40-plus yards — twice as many as Washington, which is tied for the second most at three. Five of those big plays helped set up scores by the Eagles’ opponent. The sixth was a 52-yard touchdown catch by Dallas rookie CeeDee Lamb, who beat cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman on a wheel route to put last Sunday’s game — and the playoffs — out of reach.

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