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December 11, 2011
What Works Now Will Not In January
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net

RALJON, Md. -- All week long, all you heard about was this rookie running back named Roy Helu. Stop him and you'll be okay.

Oops. Forgot one or two other key people.

Mike Shanahan. The one man in the league who can consistently outcoach Bill Belichick. During his years in Denver, he was easily able to do to the Patriots what few other coaches could do. John Elway never lost to the Patriots. A good deal of that was thanks to Shanahan and his underrated head coaching talents.

Donte Stallworth. Oh yeah, he was the other guy opposite Randy Moss in 2007. You probably thought he was out of football and in some drug rehab clinic.

Jabar Gaffney. Why can't we get players like this guy? Wait a minute, remember some playoff game against San Diego some years back? This was one of the guys we thought was more worth holding on to than David Givens and Deion Branch.

Rex Grossman. If Trent Dilfer was the worst Super Bowl winning quarterback in history, was this guy the worst Super Bowl losing quarterback? Yet this guy completes nine straight passes in one stretch and had three receivers break 80 yards receiving.

And Helu wasn't stopped. He managed 126 yards rushing on 27 carries and a 4.7-yard average.

It's a good thing that the Patriots have the offense they have. Even on a "bad" day, when Brady threw an end zone pick and followed it with an explosive exchange with Bill O'Brien, misfiring on wide open receivers in the end zone, and at times having to hurry his throws because the offensive line couldn't contain guys like London Fletcher and Brian Orakpo, the Patriots still found a way to win. A late interception by Jerod Mayo on a fluky play with 22 seconds left allowed the Patriots to escape FedEx Field with a 34-27 win over the Washington Redskins on Sunday.

The win was significant in that the Patriots, after 51 years, have now finally won in every NFL city. This was the first win by the Patriots in Washington in franchise history, and only the third ever against the Skins, the others being a 52-7 obliteration at Gillette Stadium in 2007 and a lucky one-point win in 1972 over the eventual NFC champs thanks to Josh Ashton's 15 minutes of fame. The Patriots lost a 1981 game at RFK Stadium and a 2003 matchup at FedEx Field, with 21 straight wins and a Super Bowl win following the '03 loss.

Of greater significance was the possibility that the Patriots might have locked up the AFC East on Sunday. That will have to wait as the Patriots also needed the Jets to lose at home to Kansas City, but the Chiefs were pummeled by the Jets, 37-10. The Patriots still hold the advantage over the Jets in a tiebreaker, but locking up the division on a day where an anemic 4-8 team gave the Patriots a tough battle would have made for a nicer ending.

The ending, like last week against the Colts, was almost disastrous. The final two possessions of the game showed everyone why any admiration of the work the Patriots have done in 2011 shouls wait until January to make a final decision. The Patriots once again showed an inability to close out a weak opponent on both sides of the ball, and only a weird play by Mayo in the end prevented a possible overtime, or even Shanahan gambling and going for two to try and win the game in regulation.

The Patriots, leading 34-27, took over at the Redskin 49 with 10:34 to go in the game. Brady was able to connect with Aaron Hernandez for passes of 13 and 14 yards, then Danny Woodhead ran for 12 yards to the Washington 6-yard line. On second and goal at the four, Brady had a wide-open Wes Welker at the goal line. But the throw was slightly behind Welker, and the easy touchdown went right off his fingertips. On the next play, Brady tried to hit Tiquan Underwood in the back of the end zone, but Josh Wilson undercut the route and snatched the ball right on the end line to give the Skins the ball at their own 20. Brady literally blew a fuse, and on the bench got into a vigorous shouting match with O'Brien, and Belichick had to come in and intervene.

Brady knew what was coming. With 6:30 left, the Redskins moved easily through the porous Patriot defense and bled time off the clock as well. Stallworth caught a pass for 11 yards, then backup running back Evan Royster ran twice for 21 yards. Gaffney then beat Devin McCourty for 23 yards, and Helu run three times to get the Skins to the Patriot 5, first and goal, with just under two minutes to go. Neither calling timeouts nor giving up a touchdown seemed something Belichick wanted to consider, and it looked like the Skins would either tie the game and force overtime, or possibly go for two to win it in regulation.

But the Redskins aren't 4-8 for nothing. On first down, Santana Moss caught a touchdown pass in the right corner of the end zone, but Moss was called for pushing off on James Ihedigbo and the touchdown was taken off the board. Now facing first and goal at the 15, Grossman found David Anderson for six yards to the Patriot nine. 22 seconds remained on the clock.

Grossman then tried to hit Moss on a crossing route moving left to right. Just before catching the ball, Tracy White batted the ball in the air. Mayo managed to catch the ball and cradle it when he fell to the ground at the Patriot six. The play was reviewed to see if Mayo maintained possession of the ball completely during the catch, and there was no video which could overturn the call. The Patriots took over, and one kneel later, the game was over.

So in the end, the Redskins were better at losing the game than the Patriots were. The Patriot defense surrendered 463 total yards to one of the most anemic offenses in the league despite gaining 431 of their own on offense. Stallworth and Gaffney combined for 198 receiving yards against their former team, and former Jet Moss chipped in with 81 yards, 49 of them coming on a touchdown pass from Brandon Banks on a double reverse. Yet the Redskins could not finish the job and come away with an upset win at home against an opponent which is still the worst defensive team in the NFL.

One of the bright lights for the Patriots was Rob Gronkowski, who caught two touchdown passes. The first of the two set a new NFL record for most touchdown catches by a tight end in NFL history. Gronkowski had 160 yards on six catches, and continues to cement his stature as one of the best, if not the best, tight end in the league. Welker and Hernandez also topped the 80-yard mark in yards receiving.

The Patriots now have to deal with this new NFL phenomenon called Tim Tebow, and another city they have a hard time winning in. Tebow is the opposite of the Redskins, in the fact that he has lousy numbers but lots of wins.

Meanwhile, the Patriots continue to win despite making you wonder "How?" The Patriots have three games left to try and nail down a first-round bye for the second straight year. But the first round bye did them no good last year, and a home playoff game the year before did them no good either. In January, it is all about defense, and either the Patriots figure out how to stop the pass or else what happens in January won't matter at all.


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