How Ron Rivera's cancer battle, return of Alex Smith galvanized the Washington Football Team

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ASHBURN, Va. — The Washington Football Team was 2-7 in November and seemingly headed nowhere, even while playing in the NFC East. A bad team in a terrible division.

Still, Washington professed hope. Coach Ron Rivera maintained the team could win the division, a comment that often drew raised eyebrows and snickers — even if it was mathematically accurate.

Then, Washington won four straight games. The laughing stopped.

And then it became obvious: Don’t bet against a team whose coach underwent in-season cancer treatment and whose quarterback, Alex Smith, needed 17 surgeries so he could walk and play again.

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They are two big reasons Washington (7-9) won the NFC East and will host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) in the wild-card round on Saturday (8:15 p.m. ET, NBC), providing inspiration and a bonding element for a team coming off a chaotic 3-13 season in 2019.

There are other reasons as well: the addition of No. 2 overall pick Chase Young at defensive end, for example. A scouting staff that helped deliver a young talent base. Assistants who picked up slack while Rivera focused on treatments and was fatigued.

But Rivera’s battle with squamous

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