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NFL Preview - New England (9-3) at Washington (4-8)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The New England Patriots' quest for another AFC East title continues this Sunday, when the perennial powers head to FedEx Field for an interconference showdown with the staggering Washington Redskins.
The Patriots can seize a third straight divisional crown and eighth in the past nine seasons with a victory this week coupled with a loss by the rival New York Jets on Sunday. New England can also reach the 10-win mark for the ninth consecutive year by besting the Redskins, which would serve as the longest active such streak in the NFL now that injury-riddled Indianapolis is guaranteed not to reach that total.
New England has opened up a two-game advantage on the Jets for first place in the AFC East by virtue of four straight wins in which it has scored at least 31 points each time, extending the run with a 31-24 home triumph over the downtrodden Colts last Sunday.
The Patriots weren't overly pleased with their performance in spite of the final result, however. New England started out slow on offense, mustering just a field goal over its first two drives, while a much-maligned defense allowed the league's most anemic scoring attacks to put up three touchdown drives of 86 or more yards over the game's last 20 minutes.
"It's kind of disappointing, to be honest with you," Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo remarked afterward. "Even though it's a win and it's hard to win games in the National Football League, at the same time you want to finish so much stronger than that."
The Patriots were awesome in between, however, with quarterback Tom Brady engineering touchdowns on four consecutive possessions that gave the playoff hopefuls a commanding 31-3 advantage prior to Indianapolis' belated push. The reigning league MVP finished the day with 289 yards and two scores on a crisp 29-of-38 passing.
Washington had a fourth-quarter lapse of its own this past weekend, one which proved to be far more fatal. Holding onto a three-point lead against the Jets with under five minutes to play, the Redskins gave up 21 points in a mistake- filled late stages of a 34-19 loss at FedEx Field.
After New York took a 20-16 edge on a 30-yard touchdown pass from Mark Sanchez to Santonio Holmes with 4:49 left, Washington quarterback Rex Grossman was sacked and fumbled on the ensuing possession. The Jets recovered at the Redskins' nine-yard line and reached the end zone two plays later to put the contest out of reach.
Washington turned the ball over three times for the game, with Grossman also tossing a late interception while completing just 19-of-46 throws for 221 yards.
"We couldn't get much going on offense," Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan said. "It's hard to win the football game when you finish like we did."
The defeat was the seventh in eight games for Washington following an encouraging 3-1 start to 2011, and the team is on the verge of ensuring itself a third straight losing season.
Making matters worse for the Redskins, two key offensive starters -- tight end Fred Davis and left tackle Trent Williams -- are expected to sit out the final four games on suspension for reportedly violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Davis is leading Washington with career highs of 59 catches and 796 receiving yards this year.
The Redskins have prevailed in six of eight overall meetings with New England, but the Patriots lambasted Washington by a 52-7 score during their 16-0 regular season of 2007 in the most recent matchup between the teams. The Redskins had beaten the Pats six straight times prior to that outcome, the last of which was a 20-17 decision at FedEx Field on Sept. 28, 2003. New England is 0-2 all-time as the visitor in this set, having also dropped a 24-22 verdict at RFK Stadium in 1981.
Shanahan and New England's Bill Belichick are no strangers to one another, with the two multiple Super Bowl-winning head coaches having faced off 12 times in the past. All of those games took place during Shanahan's long tenure with Denver from 1995-2008, with his Broncos coming out on top on nine of those occasions. That includes Denver's 27-13 win over New England in the 2005 AFC Divisional Playoffs, and four of Belichick's losses to Shanahan occurred while at the helm of the Cleveland Browns from 1991-95.
Belichick has a 1-2 record against Washington as a head coach, while Shanahan is 10-4 overall against New England when counting a 1989 victory over the Pats while in charge of the Los Angeles Raiders.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
It's no secret that the engine that drives a New England offense that's averaged 423.8 total yards per game, second only to New Orleans this season, is a multi-faceted passing attack that's one of the most lethal in the business. Brady (3916 passing yards, 30 TD, 10 INT) has constructed yet another All-Pro caliber campaign as the unit's on-field director and has been sensational during the Patriots' current win streak, amassing a 119.6 quarterback rating and throwing for 10 touchdowns with no interceptions over the four games. The three-time Super Bowl champion is helped out by two of the league's premier pass-catchers in sure-handed wide receiver Wes Welker (93 receptions, 1253 yards, 8 TD) and tremendous tight end Rob Gronkowski (65 receptions, 928 yards), the NFL's leader with 13 touchdown receptions after hauling in two more against the Colts last week. Welker tops all players in both catches and receiving yards as Brady's primary target and made a huge impact in the Indianapolis game as well, netting 110 yards on 11 grabs and snaring every pass that came his way. Move tight end Aaron Hernandez (54 receptions, 5 TD) and veteran wideout Deion Branch (48 receptions, 4 TD) serve as complementary pieces for the NFL's second-ranked passing offense, with grinder BenJarvus Green-Ellis (599 rushing yards, 8 TD) heading up a committee of backs for a running game that's usually overshadowed by the exploits of Brady and his receivers.
The Redskins will attempt to combat New England's prolific aerial assault with a formidable pass rush led by the excellent outside linebacker combo of two- time Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo (47 tackles, 6 sacks) and impressive rookie Ryan Kerrigan (55 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 1 INT), who've combined for 12 1/2 sacks and six forced fumbles on the season. Their ability to apply consistent pressure has greatly aided a secondary that's yielded a respectable 208.8 passing yards per game (208.8 ypg) and hasn't allowed a quarterback to reach the 300-yard mark this year, though the defense's eight interceptions are among the lower totals in the league. Washington has been generally average against the run in 2011, though 36-year-old inside linebacker London Fletcher (124 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT) continues to play at a high level in his 14th NFL season and young protege Perry Riley (43 tackles) has proven himself to be an asset in that area since being inserted into a starting role last month. The Redskins will likely be without one of their top stoppers for Sunday's test, with physical strong safety LaRon Landry battling a groin injury that's kept him out of the last two games, and that could be an issue with replacement Reed Doughty (59 tackles) considered a downgrade in coverage.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
Washington has often struggled on this side of the ball throughout its disappointing season, with Grossman (2174 passing yards, 10 TD, 15 INT) displaying a troubling tendency for turnovers and the team ranking next to last in the league in rushing yards (87.5 ypg), but the offense has gotten a bit of a spark from running back Roy Helu (456 rushing yards, 2 TD, 42 receptions) lately. The rookie has recorded back-to-back 100-yard rushing efforts after supplanting the injury-prone Ryan Torain as the lead carrier and shown outstanding pass-catching skills as well, which may come in handy now that Davis (59 receptions, 3 TD) -- the Redskins' leader in receptions and receiving yards -- won't be eligible to play for the remainder of the year. Veteran wideouts Jabar Gaffney (46 receptions, 3 TD) and Santana Moss (34 receptions, 2 TD) now stand as the top two options for Grossman, who's thrown multiple interceptions in five of his nine starts this season and was routinely off the mark against the Jets, though the inconsistent ninth-year pro did hit on 26- of-35 passes for 314 yards and two touchdowns in a victory at Seattle the previous week. Washington's 28 giveaways are the second-most in the NFL in 2011 and its front line has allowed 33 sacks in 12 games, making the loss of the talented Williams a tough blow as well. Substitute Sean Locklear does have experience, having drawn 81 starts over an eight-year career, but most of it has come on the right side.
The Patriots enter Sunday's clash with plenty of problems of their own on the defensive end, namely in a makeshift secondary that was scorched for 339 net passing yards and two scores by career backup Dan Orlovsky last week, with the Indianapolis quarterback completing an effortless 30-of-37 attempts on the day. Depth issues forced New England to start reserve wide receiver Matthew Slater (19 tackles) at one of the safety spots against the Colts and journeyman Nate Jones (9 tackles), signed off the street just days prior to last week's game, saw extensive work as the nickel back. The team is hopeful safety Patrick Chung (55 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) can return from a four-game absence caused by a foot injury on Sunday and help support a backfield that's permitted a league- high 310 yards per game through the air. The Pats are tied for second in the NFL with 17 interceptions, however, with cornerback Kyle Arrington (65 tackles, 12 PD) topping all players with seven picks as the secondary's clear-cut bright spot. New England has also gotten good contributions in the pass-rushing department from end Andre Carter (47 tackles, 9 sacks), who spent the last five seasons with the Redskins before being released in March, and fellow offseason pickup Mark Anderson (18 tackles, 7 sacks), while linebacker Jerod Mayo (59 tackles, 1 INT) and three-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork (39 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 INT) give the defense a pair of quality run stoppers.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Redskins don't have the firepower to match the Patriots score for score, so they'll have to take a page from the Bills, Steelers and Giants -- the three teams that have managed to knock off New England this season. All of those clubs were able to frustrate Brady and get him off his game enough to win, and Washington will attempt to do the same with a strong pass rush led by Orakpo and Kerrigan and persistent blitzing by aggressive defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. It's up to Brady to make quick decisions and expose the mismatches that will present themselves, while the Redskins have to be sound in their coverage assignments to have a chance.
Washington will also need to cut down on its mistakes if it's going to pull off the upset here, as the Patriots rarely beat themselves with costly errors. That could be a tall order, however, considering Grossman's penchant for interceptions and New England's ability to create turnovers on defense. The Redskins have had less than two giveaways in a game just once this year, and that came in the season opener.
Expect the Patriots to concentrate on containing the run and daring the erratic Grossman to beat them with his arm. The Redskins are 3-1 when rushing for over 100 yards as a team and a woeful 1-7 when they fail to reach that mark.
While the Patriots possess a superior quarterback and far better skill players than the Redskins, there's a bigger reason why New England is on the verge of an eighth playoff appearance in nine years and Washington's staring at a third straight losing season. Success in the NFL is about making the most of opportunities, and the Patriots don't turn the ball over a lot and have been one of the league's most efficient offenses inside the red zone, whereas the Redskins seem to continually give games away with breakdowns and costly mistakes. With Brady having been near the top of his game as of late, Washington's going to need a superlative effort on defense and Grossman to conjure up one of his "Good Rex" performances to come out on top. After losing his most reliable receiver to suspension, that doesn't seem to be overly likely.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 30, Redskins 20
12/08 10:59:50 ET