The Washington Post

As the schedule softens, opportunit­y knocks

- BY SAM FORTIER

After facing one of the NFL’S toughest slates in 2021, the Washington Commanders have one of the league’s easiest schedules in 2022. Washington will play seven games against teams expected to be among the eight worst in the league this season and will face only two teams projected in the top 10, according to Inpredicta­ble, a sports betting analysis website. ¶ In this critical third year, Coach Ron Rivera wants to start fast. His team has struggled early in both of his years in Washington — starting 2-7 in 2020, then 2-6 in 2021 — and it would be hard to cherry-pick an easier opening stretch than this year’s. If the Commanders navigate the tough part of the schedule, which generally comes in the middle of the year, a late bye (in Week 14) could propel them toward the postseason — though they often will be at a critical rest disadvanta­ge. ¶ Here’s a week-by-week breakdown of Washington’s schedule:

1 SEPT. 11 1 P. M., FOX vs. Jacksonvil­le Jaguars

Rivera’s third season starts with a soft launch. Jacksonvil­le is one of the only teams in the same stratosphe­re of dysfunctio­n as Washington. Since 2011, the Jaguars have been the worst team in the league, by a wide margin, at 47-130 (.266).

Despite big changes — firing Urban Meyer and hiring former Eagles coach Doug Pederson to develop a young, talented core — the Jaguars remain a relative layup. The Carson Wentz era will begin with a chance for the quarterbac­k to avenge last season’s Week 18 loss that forced the Colts out of the playoffs and him out of Indianapol­is.

2 SEPT. 18 1 P. M., FOX at Detroit Lions

Similar to Jacksonvil­le: If Rivera wants to show his team has taken a step forward, Detroit is a juicy opportunit­y — even on the road. The Lions have young talent and seem to play hard for Coach Dan Campbell, but with quarterbac­k Jared Goff, their ceiling is limited. In a loss at Ford Field in 2020, Washington defensive end Chase Young made the biggest mistake of his rookie year by roughing the passer in the final seconds to push the Lions into field goal range. Young will miss at least the season’s first four games while recovering from a knee injury, so he won’t be able to redeem himself in this one.

3 SEPT. 25 1 P. M., FOX vs. Philadelph­ia Eagles

In 2020, the Rivera era began with a surprise win over the Wentz-led Eagles at Fedex Field. Wentz was

24 for 42 for 270 yards, two touchdowns and two intercepti­ons — and he would like to be better in his first matchup with the team that drafted him. Though this game might not be as charged as Wentz’s return to Philadelph­ia in Week 10, it promises to carry extra weight for a 29-year-old who’s trying to rejuvenate his career.

4 OCT. 2 1 P. M., FOX at Dallas Cowboys

In Week 16 last season, this team imploded in a 56-14 loss at Dallas. Washington allowed 42 points in the first half, matching a franchise record, and one defensive tackle, Jonathan Allen, threw a punch at another, Daron Payne, on the sideline as the team’s playoff hopes evaporated on “Sunday Night Football.” Oddsmakers believe this will be one of Washington’s toughest games. The Cowboys are favored to defend their NFC East title and are led by quarterbac­k Dak Prescott and linebacker Micah Parsons.

5 OCT. 9 1 P. M., CBS vs. Tennessee Titans

Last season, Tennessee got the AFC’S top seed as a much better version of what Washington wanted to be: a defensive power with an elite rushing attack and an effective veteran passer. This year, the Titans will run it back with quarterbac­k Ryan Tannehill, running back Derrick Henry and a defense headlined by safety Kevin Byard and tackle Jeffery Simmons.

6 OCT. 13 8: 1 5 P. M., PRIME VI DEO at Chicago Bears

For the first time since 2007, Washington will face a Thursday night opponent that’s neither in the NFC East nor the Minnesota Vikings. Rivera has not had a lot of success coaching against the team he spent nine years with as a player — Carolina was 1-3 vs. Chicago under Rivera — and Washington has a formidable test to reverse that trend despite the Bears’ bleak outlook in the first year of a new regime.

Since the arrival of “Thursday Night Football” in 2006, road teams are 107-139 (.435).

7 OCT. 23 1 P. M., FOX vs. Green Bay Packers

After another busy offseason, quarterbac­k Aaron Rodgers is back — but the team around him looks different. The Packers traded star wideout Davante Adams to Las Vegas, so their offense will rely on several rookie wide receivers and a talented backfield. The unit needs to score just enough to complement the defense, which, led by cornerback Jaire Alexander and tackle Kenny Clark, is expected to be one of the NFL’S best.

8 OCT. 30 4: 25 P. M., FOX at Indianapol­is Colts

This is the first of three straight games that offer intrigue for Washington quarterbac­ks past and present. Wentz returns to Indianapol­is, where last year an attempt to reestablis­h his career under former Eagles offensive coordinato­r Frank Reich combusted. Several in the Indianapol­is organizati­on, including owner Jim Irsay, repeatedly criticized Wentz this offseason. In August, Irsay said, “We went through some inconsiste­ncy at quarterbac­k, and that led to massive problems.”

The Colts replaced Wentz by trading for longtime Atlanta quarterbac­k Matt Ryan, and they bring back 2021 rushing champion Jonathan Taylor.

9 NOV. 6 1 P. M., FOX vs. Minnesota Vikings

You like that! For the first time since Washington let him walk after the 2017 season, Kirk Cousins returns to Fedex Field. The 34-year-old quarterbac­k — who went from fourth-round afterthoug­ht to Robert Griffin III’S successor to disgruntle­d two-time recipient of the franchise tag — will be joined by former Washington offensive coordinato­r Kevin O’connell, the Vikings’ first-year coach.

In October 2019, the only time Cousins has faced his former team, the host Vikings beat Washington, 19-9, behind Cousins’s peak Cousins day: 23 for 26 for 285 yards, no touchdowns and no picks.

10 NOV. 14 8: 1 5 P. M., ESPN at Philadelph­ia Eagles

On “Monday Night Football,” Wentz returns to Philadelph­ia, where in five years he went from hyped No. 2 pick to MVP candidate to one of the league’s worst quarterbac­ks to booed while sitting on the bench. The Eagles ate a record $33.8 million in salary cap to trade Wentz as part of the acrimoniou­s split. The city will be prepared to show some brotherly love.

11 NOV. 20 1 P. M., FOX at Houston Texans

Houston is expected to be the league’s worst team, according to Inpredicta­ble. The Texans are still reeling from the organizati­onal overhaul that led to the promotion of executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby.

Washington has faced Houston just five times, its fewest matchups with any active team, going 2-3. Quarterbac­k Davis Mills, wideout Brandin Cooks and rookie cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. lead this year’s Texans.

12 NOV. 27 1 P. M., FOX vs. Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons are the only team Inpredicta­ble expects to be in the same realm of bad as Houston. After trading Matt Ryan, Atlanta will bet on journeyman quarterbac­k Marcus Mariota to maximize tight end Kyle Pitts and rookie wide receiver Drake London.

But the defense features little talent outside of tackle Grady Jarrett, meaning Atlanta should be susceptibl­e to a shootout.

13 DEC. 4 1 P. M., FOX at New York Giants

If quarterbac­k Daniel Jones is still the Giants’ starter, the Commanders must learn to contain him. In three years, Jones is 4-1 with a 100.4 passer rating against Washington — and 8-24 with an 82 passer rating against everyone else. Essentiall­y, against Washington Jones is Russell Wilson — he has 30 rushes for

218 yards — and against everyone else he is Jason Campbell.

14 Bye 15 DEC. 17 OR 18 DATE, T I ME AND T V T BA vs. New York Giants

After a late bye, Washington faces New York again, this time at home with a significan­t rest advantage. (The Giants host Philadelph­ia the week before.) This is the only consolatio­n for a difficult second-half slate that includes four games — at Philadelph­ia, at the Giants, at San Francisco, vs. Dallas — in which the Commanders’ opponent will have extra rest. Having such an advantage particular­ly matters late in the season. In the past decade, teams favored by betting markets with a rest advantage are 79-30 (.725), according to the website Sharp Football Analysis.

16 DEC. 24 4: 05 P. M., CBS at San Francisco 49ers

Christmas Eve. West Coast. Saturday afternoon. Washington could get its first glimpse of quarterbac­k Trey Lance, and Coach Kyle Shanahan will have a shot at improving his 2-1 record against the team he and his father, Mike, coached during the RGIII era. Oddsmakers believe this game and Week 4 at Dallas are the toughest on Washington’s schedule.

17 J AN. 1 1 P. M., FOX vs. Cleveland Browns

If healthy, Browns quarterbac­k Deshaun Watson will be in his fifth game back from suspension. The Browns have an elite defense, led by end Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward, and they could become a very good offense with a dangerous running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt if Watson returns to his form from 2020 with Houston.

Washington has always struggled against Cleveland. The Commanders’ 12-34-1 record (.266) against the Browns is its second worst vs. any team, behind only its mark against Kansas City (1-10, .091).

18 J AN. 7 OR 8 DATE, T I ME AND T V T BA vs. Dallas Cowboys

Everybody knows what this is: rivals meeting during the last week of the season in what league and television executives hope will be a game with playoff implicatio­ns. Do the teams come through? TBD. (Washington also will retire former quarterbac­k Sonny Jurgensen’s No. 9.)

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