ASHBURN, Va. (AP) — Looking to reinvigorate their offense that has become stagnant, the Washington Commanders are turning back to Carson Wentz at quarterback for a crucial late-season game with their playoff hopes hanging in the balance.
Coach Ron Rivera decided to go with Wentz over Taylor Heinicke for his team’s next game Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, citing the veteran QB’s play in relief at San Francisco and a better command of the offense than earlier this season.
“Where we are right now, I’m looking for a little bit of a spark, a little something different,” Rivera said after practice Wednesday. “And I think now’s a good opportunity for it.”
Wentz replaced Heinicke during the fourth quarter of Washington’s loss at San Francisco and went 12 of 16 for 123 yards and a touchdown pass. The 29-year-old with the strong arm gives the Commanders a higher ceiling than Heinicke, whose success running the offense sputtered after winning five of his first six starts.
“I felt like we were on a roll there for a little bit, and got ourselves in a position to make the playoffs,” Heinicke said. “Obviously you want to play, but it’s out of my hands now. They’ve made a decision and I’m going to try to be the best backup I can be to Carson.”
Rivera told several veteran players about his decision before naming Wentz the starter, which was the most likely outcome not only given the move to bench Heinicke and the Commanders’ three-game winless stretch but also the assets the organization gave up to acquire Wentz last offseason. He went into training camp as the unquestioned starter before getting injured.
Months later, Wentz’s performance against the 49ers tipped the scales in his favor, despite going 2-4 in his first six games with Washington.
“Now he’s had a little bit more of an opportunity to see the rest of the offense, feel the rest of the offense and I think that’s a big part of it,” Rivera said. “He’s more comfortable with what we’re doing. That was evident in the game. In spite of the fact that they knew we were going to throw it, they kept coming, and I thought he handled those situations very, very well.”
This will be Wentz’s first start since Oct. 13 at Chicago when he broke the ring finger on his right, throwing hand and had surgery, landing on injured reserve. He was in uniform again and backed up Heinicke in a home loss to the New York Giants on Dec. 18.
“It’s exciting for me, personally, but I think at the end of the day it’s exciting for this team,” Wentz said. “We all know where we’re at. We all know what we’re capable of and what we’re up against.”
The Commanders are 7-7-1 and can clinch a playoff spot with a win and with losses by Seattle, Detroit and Green Bay. They host the Dallas Cowboys in Week 18.
They can also be eliminated with a loss to Cleveland and wins by the Lions and Packers. Improved defense would help after a rough showing at San Francisco, but Wentz is now being tasked with using the skills that made him a No. 2 pick and multiyear starter to help Washington stay in contention.
“We know how talented he is: He’s really big, great arm strength, can make a ton of plays off schedule,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. “Coming off of the injury, I think he looks healthy, and he looks fresh. He did a lot of nice things.”
Wentz also brings something fresh to the Commanders after they went 0-2-1 in their past three games.
“I feel like we can use some type of change or something to spark our offense,” rookie running back Brian Robinson Jr. said. “I feel like we’ve been kind of doing the same things over the last however many weeks. It’ll be nice to kind of have something new.”
NOTES: S Kam Curl said he feels good after missing the 49ers game with an ankle injury. He was a limited participant in practice, along with CB Benjamin St-Juste, who has also been hampered by a sore ankle. … RB Antonio Gibson (knee/ankle) did not practice and is in danger of not being available against Cleveland.
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Berea, Ohio, contributed.
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