Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 11, 2011

Hopes Are Dashed Again At FedEx Field

The NFL is the league of “on any given Sunday,” and for a while on this Sunday afternoon fans of the Washington Redskins may have been thinking that this was going to be their day. But Pete Rozelle’s old paean to parity isn’t the only truism about professional football. It’s also a game where more often than not, good teams find a way to win and bad ones discover a creative new way to lose. So in the end, when the good if flawed New England Patriots battled the bad Redskins, the result was predictable.

Before the Patriots escaped with the win, their first ever at Washington, the two teams engaged in an entertaining shootout. While at times seemingly a bit out of sync, New England’s high powered offense put plenty of points on the board, as is usually the case. What may have been surprising to Redskins fans was that quarterback Rex Grossman and the Washington offense were able to keep up. Washington came into the contest averaging just 16.8 points per game, next to last in the league. They bettered that mark in the first thirty minutes, with the two teams going to the locker room knotted at 20-20.

But while those numbers no doubt cheered the Redskins faithful, they disguised the fact that a crucial sequence of two possessions by Washington and one by New England early in the contest had already revealed which team was the good one and which the bad. In the week leading up to the game, the Redskins lost their leading receiver Fred Davis and star left tackle Trent Williams to season-ending suspensions for repeat violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. The narcissistic and self-indulgent behavior of the two is itself something that occurs far more frequently on bad teams than on good ones. On the team’s second offensive possession, the loss of Williams cost the Redskins dearly.

After Washington’s defense stopped New England’s opening drive, the ensuing punt was downed on the Washington 4-yard line. On third down Grossman dropped back into the end zone to pass. Defensive end Andre Carter blew past replacement left tackle Willie Smith and blindsided Grossman causing the ball to pop free. The Patriots Vince Wilfork fell on it for a touchdown, negating the effort of the Washington defense and putting the Patriots ahead 7-0.

The Redskins then drove down the field from their own 19 to the New England 2-yard line in just seven plays, with a Grossman to Donte Stallworth pass for 51 yards the big blow. But with a first and goal from six feet Washington was unable to score the tying touchdown. Instead they went backwards thanks to a false start penalty, and wound up having to settle for a chip shot field goal by Graham Gano.

Thus in successive possessions the Redskins gave up seven points on a turnover that might never have happened had their starting left tackle been eligible to play; and then failed to tie the score despite having first and goal on the two. To make matters worse, Gano’s kickoff following the field goal went out of bounds; an utterly avoidable error that gave New England the ball on their own 40-yard line. Given such fine field position, it took Brady just two plays and 53 seconds to put the ball in the end zone, increasing New England’s lead to 14-3.

To the Redskins’ credit, they didn’t fold up despite being down by 11 points with less than ten minutes gone in the contest. New England began the season with a suspect defense, and that weakness has only gotten worse thanks to wave upon wave of injuries that have forced regular wide receivers into fill-in roles in the Patriots’ defensive secondary. The Washington offense had three more possessions in the first half and they scored on every one. The Redskins even led twice, at 17-14 and 20-17. But both times the better team responded, first with a grinding 16-play drive when there was plenty of time on the clock; and then again with a textbook 8-play drive run on the two-minute drill.

The shootout continued in the second thirty minutes, with the first three drives resulting in touchdowns, two by New England sandwiched around one by Washington. It was not until the next to last play of the third quarter that Washington punter Sav Rocca trotted onto the field for just the second time in the game. Both defenses finally stiffened, and when Brady was intercepted in the end zone with 6:30 to play the Redskins still trailed 34-27.

Grossman then put together one final drive, converting two big third down passes but relying principally on the running of rookies Evan Royster and Roy Helu. Of course, what Washington fans should have known was that the real purpose of the drive was to set up a situation in which their team could find a new way to lose. In this case, it was a usually reliable and sure-handed veteran who became the goat on successive plays. With the game moving into its final minute Washington had second and goal on the Patriots’ 5-yard line. Grossman appeared to hit Santana Moss for the tying touchdown, but Moss was called for offensive pass interference, negating the score. Two plays later Grossman again went to Moss over the middle. The pass was on target, but Moss bobbled the ball, and then as he attempted to regain control batted it into the waiting arms of Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo for an interception that sealed New England’s victory.

The Patriots are a good team, headed to the playoffs for the ninth time in the eleven years that head coach Bill Belichick has stalked the sidelines. How deep they will go in those playoffs remains questionable, due to their porous defense; but for now Patriots’ fans will be happy their team escaped FedEx Field with a win. The Redskins are not a good team, insured now of their fourth consecutive losing season. Head coach Mike Shanahan will have back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in his career. Despite a valiant effort, for long-suffering fans of the burgundy and gold, this was not “any given Sunday.” Instead, it was an afternoon spent finding one more way to lose.

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