LANDOVER, Md. (AP) — Undrafted, unheralded Taylor Heinicke took on big, bad Tom Brady — who had no idea who the QB out of Old Dominion was when they briefly were teammates a few years ago — and, while the end result went about as expected, a head-first dive for a TD sure captured everyone’s attention and imagination.
About 24 hours after finding out he would play quarterback for Washington against Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers in an NFC wild-card game because of Alex Smith’s injured calf, Heinicke got off to a rather inauspicious beginning. Making his first NFL start since 2018 — and only second ever — Heinicke saw his first pass get dropped. His third hit the turf near a receiver’s feet. The fifth was picked off.
Seemed about right. So did the final score Saturday night: Brady’s Tampa Bay 31, Heinicke’s Washington 23.
“A lot of people have asked me what it felt like going up against the ‘GOAT,’ Tom Brady. I didn’t really think about that this week,” Heinicke said. “I’m proud of myself and happy that coaches believed in me. Hopefully I deserve to be in this league a little longer.”
Eventually, Heinicke got going and gave Washington a chance, which was all he, coach Ron Rivera and players such as star rookie Chase Young really could have asked for under these circumstances.
“It was gutsy. It really was,” Rivera said about the job Heinicke did. “And it’s one of those things that a guy like him, that works hard at what he does — he’s created an opportunity for himself.”
After Heinicke’s stretch-for-the-pylon 8-yard touchdown run pulled Washington within two points late in the third quarter, he was surrounded by enthusiastic teammates. Young shouted while pointing at the burgundy letters forming the name on the back of the QB’s No. 4 white jersey and looking into a TV camera.
Folks who were watching from afar got excited, too, including a tweet from reigning league MVP Patrick Mahomes.
Although that play briefly sent Heinicke to the locker room with a separated shoulder, he returned without missing an offensive snap for Washington. His 11-yard touchdown pass to Steven Sims Jr. brought the NFC East champions within 28-23. But it wasn't enough.
Heinicke finished 26 of 44 for 306 yards, one TD pass and one interception, along with six carries for a team-leading 46 yards and a score.
“Some of our young guys kind of might’ve relaxed when Alex Smith wasn’t playing, and I kept preaching at them, ‘This kid can run. He can do a lot of things,’” Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians said.
Smith built a pretty strong case for NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors, returning to action after two years and 17 operations for a broken right leg. Washington went 5-0 in Smith’s last five starts to sneak into the playoffs despite a 7-9 record, but a strained right calf hampered him down the stretch.
“Alex just felt he couldn’t escape,” Rivera said. “And with as aggressive as this defense is that we played, I just felt we didn’t want to put him in a bad situation.”
All in all, Heinicke acquitted himself quite well for a guy who entered the evening having thrown 77 passes in the pros.
He was taking online classes in math at ODU when Washington contacted him to add a “quarantine quarterback” just in case the team ran out of players.
“When he first got here a month or so ago, I didn’t know too much about him. ... The first time I even caught a pass from him was last week. But he earned my respect,” Washington wideout Terry McLaurin said. “He was just prepared for his moment and that’s what this league’s about.”
Safe to say this encounter went much better for Heinicke than the first time he ran into Brady, a six-time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots who added to his NFL postseason records for most wins, TD tosses and yards passing with Saturday’s performance: 22 of 40, 381 yards, two touchdown throws.
Back in September 2017, when Heinicke began a 2½ week stint on New England’s practice squad, he decided to get noticed by Brady and coach Bill Belichick by showing up waaaay early on Day 1.
Didn’t quite work out as planned.
“I said, ‘I’m going to make a great impression. I’m going to be the first one in the building.’ I got in there at 5:15-5:30 (a.m.), go in the quarterback room, and Tom’s already in there, studying film,” Heinicke recalled. “And he had no idea that they had just signed a practice squad quarterback. So he was like, ‘Who the hell are you?’”
Now Brady — and a lot of others — know Heinicke well.
“He has that ‘it’ factor,” Washington right tackle Morgan Moses said, “and you just can’t teach that.”
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