Alex Smith is back in the NFL playoffs.
Smith is basically a lock to be named NFL Comeback Player of the Year after coming back from a broken tibia and fibula in his right leg. A flesh-eating bacteria following the break in his leg nearly led to it being amputated, but two years later, Smith has overcome the odds and has guided Washington to its first division title and playoff appearance since 2015.
NFL wild-card playoffs schedule
Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills, 11:05 a.m. MST, TV: CBS
Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks, 2:40 p.m., TV: Fox
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team, 6:15 p.m., TV: NBC
Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans, 11:05 a.m., TV: ABC, ESPN
Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints, 2:40 p.m., TV: CBS, Nick, Amazon Prime
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers, 6:15 p.m., TV: NBC, Telemundo, Peacock
With Smith as a starter this year, Washington is 5-1, its latest win coming in a 20-14 victory over Philadelphia to clinch the NFC East. Though the headlines after the win were all about Eagles head coach Doug Pederson’s decision to sit starting quarterback Jalen Hurts in the fourth quarter, the only thing that mattered to Smith and Washington was the victory, which sealed a playoff spot.
In his six games started this year, Smith has a 66.5% completion rate and has thrown for 1,220 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions. Washington has gone with Smith as the starter largely due to his ability to manage the game well and limit mistakes. His veteran presence has improved the players around him, giving them more confidence.
As of Thursday, Smith’s status for Saturday’s playoff game against Tampa Bay is questionable, as Smith has a strained right calf.
If Smith does play, here are three challenging factors facing him and Washington for Saturday’s game (6:15 p.m. MST, NBC).
Dueling against Tom Brady
Historically in the past two decades, the quarterback that NFL teams dread playing against the most is Tom Brady. Brady is 30-11 in the postseason as a quarterback, a six-time Super Bowl champion who just makes the right play at the right time. In the postseason, Brady is Mr. Reliable. Brady will be trying to avenge his performance in last year’s wild card game against Tennessee, when he turned in one of his worst postseason performances, going 20 for 27 with no touchdowns and throwing a pick-six to seal the Patriots’ loss with nine seconds left.
Brady probably isn’t going to have a repeat performance of the Titans game, though he will have his hands full against Washington’s defense. Washington boasts one of the top defenses in the NFL, ranking second is both yards allowed per game (305) and passing yards allowed per game (191). Led by rookie Chase Young, Washington’s defensive line is great at getting pressure on the quarterback.
Brady will test the Washington defense. The Buccaneers are second in passing offense, racking up 289 yards per game with 42 touchdowns this season. Brady has been red-hot in his last three games, throwing for 390, 348 and 399 yards and has thrown for four touchdowns apiece in his last two games.
Smith’s lack of mobility
Smith has always been a threat to run, as first evidenced by his time at Utah, when he ran for 631 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2004. In Kansas City, Smith rushed for over 430 yards in two different seasons and averaged 334 yards per season in his five seasons with the Chiefs.
Since his injury, and especially when he has been dealing with the calf strain, Smith’s mobility is nonexistent. He’s only rushed 10 times this year, for just three yards. He’s also been sacked 22 times in eight games played and hasn’t shown the ability he once had to escape from sacks and scramble.
Before playing against the Eagles, Smith missed two straight games with the calf strain. If he plays, he won’t have much mobility and will basically stay in the pocket.
Washington’s offensive line will have its hands full against Tampa Bay’s defensive line
While it has vastly improved from its performance at the beginning of the season, Washington’s offensive line will need to provide its best performance of the year on Saturday. As covered in the previous point, Smith needs a clean pocket to work with. With Smith’s lack of mobility, Tampa Bay’s game plan is simple — blitz Smith early and often. Tampa Bay enters the game ranked fifth in sacks, with 48, while Washington’s offensive line has allowed 50 sacks, tied for second-worst in the league.
The Buccaneers will try and limit Washington’s run game, and they are good at doing so — Tampa Bay allows just 80 yards per game on the ground, best in the NFL. It will likely be up to Smith to beat them himself. The Buccaneers’ secondary is average, allowing 247 yards per game, so if Smith can get time to work with, he could do some damage.
Washington’s offensive line has improved from its performance earlier in the season, when it gave up eight sacks in a game, allowing 2.75 sacks per game in the latter half of the year. It will need to show up big-time against the Bucs.