Redskins Could Be Test For the Patriots to Pass

tom brady - new england patriots
"With a guy like Brady," says veteran linebacker Greg Ellis, whose Cowboys were thrashed by the Patriots on Oct. 14. "If you're not in his face every single play, he's probably going to make you pay for it." (Stephan Savoia - AP)
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Jim Fassel stared at a bank of television screens showing the 1 p.m. NFL games Sunday as he ate lunch and prepared to do a radio broadcast of the Eagles-Bears game from Lincoln Financial Field. On the screen in the bottom left corner, Tom Brady was busy passing circles around the Miami Dolphins as the New England Patriots were winning for the seventh time this season.

Fassel couldn't help but notice, and he shook his head in admiration when he was asked if he thinks the undefeated Patriots are the team with the goods to join the 1972 Dolphins, the team with the only unbeaten season in NFL history.

"I don't know if anyone can do it," said Fassel, who was the head coach when the Giants lost to Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV in 2001. "I just don't know if it can be done. It's almost impossible to go through a season and not have a letdown. The season is just too long and too hard. I'd say it's pretty close to being impossible. But if it's ever going to be done, it's them. It's this team. This team is that dominant."

The Washington Redskins get the next chance to derail the Patriots. They'll play the Patriots on Sunday in Foxborough, Mass., one week before the Patriots will be in Indianapolis for what promises to be the biggest game of this NFL regular season. The Redskins can only hope they'll catch the Patriots looking ahead. But it's not likely, given the meticulous preparations of Patriots Coach Bill Belichick and the players who seem to buy fully into whatever he sells.

"Something could sneak up on us," veteran linebacker Junior Seau said recently in a Patriots' postgame locker room. "We always have to be prepared."

That's not to say, however, that people around the league believe the Patriots can't be beaten. They don't. They simply think it will take the right team playing the right way, perhaps on a day when the Patriots are off their game. The Redskins pose a threat not only because they play the Patriots the week before the Colts game, but also because they have an offense with a running game that has the potential to control the clock. They have a quarterback with big-play capabilities in Jason Campbell and a defense that, at least in theory, can put pressure on Brady and still match up with Patriots wide receivers Randy Moss, Donte' Stallworth and Wes Welker.

"The Redskins actually match up relatively well because of their cover guys in the secondary and the ways that [assistant head coach-defense] Gregg Williams will come up with to get after Brady," an executive with one AFC team said yesterday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he didn't want to risk drawing Belichick's ire. "They can run it and throw it on offense and maybe score some points. I'm not saying the Redskins will win. I'm just saying if they play an A game and the Patriots play a C-minus game, they might have a chance."

The Patriots beat the Dolphins, 49-28, on Sunday. They've scored 97 points in their last two games and are on pace to shatter the NFL's single-season scoring record. They've scored at least 34 points in each game. Brady's six touchdown passes Sunday gave him 27 for the season, with only two interceptions. The franchise's three Super Bowl triumphs have been crafted on Belichick's defensive wizardry, but the offseason acquisitions of Moss, Stallworth and Welker have made the offense nearly unstoppable.

The Dallas Cowboys took a 5-0 record into their game against the Patriots nine days ago in Irving, Tex., but lost, 48-27. Brady threw five touchdown passes in that game. The Cowboys did manage to lead 24-21 in the second half, proving that the Patriots aren't completely invulnerable.

"We worried about that passing attack," Cowboys Coach Wade Phillips said after that game. "We tried to stop them running the ball. Certainly they were able to throw it. We just didn't quite make the plays on defense. . . . We could have stayed in the game. Obviously, the final score looked a lot worse than what it was. . . . They are an outstanding team with tremendous matchup problems for any defense."

Therein lies the problem: The Cowboys did their best to take away Moss as Brady's primary target, and were beaten when Brady turned to Stallworth and Welker.

"There are only so many calls you can have," Phillips said. "We played man-to-man, played zone, zone blitzes. We blitzed. . . . It wasn't going to be a nothing-to-nothing game. I knew that. We felt like we could score on them, and we did score some. . . . We knew they would be tough to hold down, and we knew they would throw it a whole lot."

Brady has been sacked only seven times all season, and the Patriots are in the process of obliterating the conventional NFL wisdom that an offense has to be balanced to be successful. There have been times this season when they've had virtually no running threat, as when they played some of the Cowboys game with top two tailbacks Laurence Maroney and Sammy Morris hurt and out of the lineup. It didn't matter. Opponents can't seem to get to Brady or match up with all his receivers.

"As a defense, you hope that you can get an offense one-dimensional because you think it helps you on your side of the ball," Cowboys defensive end Marcus Spears said. "But I think that's what they do. . . . You've got those guys spread out. Receivers were making plays. Brady was making throws."

What's the answer? There's no consensus, even within the same locker room.

"With a guy like Brady," Cowboys veteran linebacker Greg Ellis said, "if you're not in his face every single play, he's probably going to make you pay for it."

But Cowboys defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said the key is trying to keep Brady and the Patriots guessing and off-balance by blitzing on some plays and dropping into coverage on others.

"You want him to get a different look every time," Stewart said.

No matter what defenses have done, the Patriots have had all the answers.

"Tom does a good job of getting the ball to the open guy," Belichick said. "He reads the coverage and that's who he throws it to. . . . We go into the game and try and have a balanced offense -- running, passing, throwing quick, throwing deep. And sometimes we see how it goes, see how it works, see what they're giving us and try to adjust accordingly. I think sometimes we have some flexibility on offense [that] we try to utilize based on what we're seeing."

Phillips compared these Patriots to the high-powered Buffalo Bills teams in the early 1990s with quarterback Jim Kelly, tailback Thurman Thomas and wide receivers Andre Reed and James Lofton.

"We tried about everything we could do, almost every coverage and blitz," Phillips said. "They seem to just have the right answer for everything and that's certainly the quarterback. He does a great job distributing the ball to a lot of different people. . . . We played Jim Kelly and lost to them, Reed and those kinds of guys. That three-wide-receiver offense was hard to match up against. That Buffalo offense was really good. But these guys are really good."

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