But the Patriots (7-0) are hardly the Buccaneers. The four-time and defending Super Bowl champions lead the NFL in scoring, at 35.6 points per game. Quarterback Tom Brady, at 38, is as efficient, inspired and unflappable as he has ever been, with an array of weapons at his disposal. And New England’s defense is no slouch, either, tied for second with 26 sacks. Defensive end Chandler Jones, the NFL’s sack leader, accounts for 8.5 of the team total.
1. DeSean Jackson’s return: Sunday’s game is expected to mark the long-awaited return of DeSean Jackson, who has idled since straining a hamstring in the first quarter of the Sept. 13 season opener. Coach Jay Gruden listed him as questionable after Friday’s practice, but Jackson insisted earlier in the week that he was “good to go.” Sunday will mark eight weeks since he suffered the injury what was expected to keep him out three to four weeks. Assuming the 5-foot-10, 178-pound speedster rejoins the lineup, he’ll add a deep threat to a passing game that has grown conservative and predictable in his absence. Jackson’s 20.9 yards-per-catch average led the NFL last season. Ideally, Jackson’s return will prove a panacea for the Redskins’ sputtering running game, as well, drawing the attention of Patriot defenders. “Adding DeSean does bring another element, another piece to the puzzle, another guy you’ve got to cover,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said this week. “As a quarterback, you want options. And that’s what he gives us.”
2. Rattling Tom Brady: That’s a tall order with a healthy corps of NFL pass-rushers. It will be even tougher for the Redskins on Sunday, with outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who led the team with 13.5 sacks last season, expected to play just 13 days after undergoing surgery on his broken right hand. Brady is arguably the NFL’s best at sensing pressure and getting the ball out quickly and on target, tallying 20 touchdown throws to just one interception this season. To rattle him, Kerrigan, who’s listed as questionable, will need help from rookie Preston Smith, inspired play from Trent Murphy and spirited work by the defensive line. Defensive tackle Chris Baker has been the unit’s chief disrupter, with 3.5 sacks to equal Kerrigan’s to date.
“Ultimately it comes down to pass rush,” Gruden said this week. “Whether it’s a four-man rush, three-man rush, five-man rush — whatever it is. But if you’re vanilla against him, he will make it a long afternoon.”
3. Minimizing unforced errors: The Redskins offense can’t hurt itself with penalties, turnovers and careless mistakes. Gruden has preached as much all week because Patriots Coach Bill Belichick is a master at exploiting opponents’ gaffes. The Redskins have done well in reducing the turnovers that plagued them at the start of the season. Against Tampa Bay, quarterback Kirk Cousins was 30 of 44, with three touchdowns and zero interception to bring his season total to nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. The Redskins can’t afford backsliding on either point Sunday.
“We’ve talked about it this week, as an offense: We can’t beat ourselves,” Cousins said. “If you try to beat yourselves and the Patriots, you’re going to be in for a long day. The unforced errors have to be eliminated. That’s why the attention to detail and the preparation has to be so sharp. We need to be that locked in on Sunday. You can’t turn the football over. We have to stay on the field and move the chains.”
4. Defensive scores: Depending who’s doing the handicapping, the Redskins will take the field at Gillette Stadium as 14-point underdogs, more or less. That might be conservative, given that the Patriots average an NFL-best 35.6 points per game, and the Redskins, 21.1. That’s a 14-point difference right there, without taking into account the home-field advantage New England will enjoy. To remain even remotely competitive, the Redskins will need scoring help from its defense and, ideally, special teams, too. Through seven games, the Redskins’ defense has yet to contribute a touchdown. Return specialist Rashad Ross has returned one kickoff for a score and recovered a blocked punt for another touchdown, but both have come late in losing efforts, after the Redskins’ deficit was out of hand.
5. Ailing defensive backs: The Patriots are arguably the last team an NFL opponent would like to face without its full complement of defensive backs. But that’s what Washington’s schedule presents in Week 9. Brady is surrounded by an arsenal of receiving targets, led by wide receiver Julian Edelman (52 receptions, six touchdowns) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (40 receptions, seven touchdowns). That tandem alone would tax any secondary. But add to that: third-down back Dion Lewis, wide receiver Danny Amendola and 6-7 tight end Scott Chandler — each of whom has caught more than 10 passes and scored at least one touchdown — and the calculus of covering each gets complicated, to say the least.
“You take away Gronkowski, great. Then who is on Edelman?” Gruden asked. “Dion Lewis has proven to be a force out of the backfield. Obviously Amendola is a heck of a player. They have got positive matchups all across the board.”
On Friday, Gruden listed all three of the Redskins’ top cornerback as questionable: Chris Culliver, who said earlier in the week he intended to play but didn’t take part in Friday’s practice because of soreness in his knee; DeAngelo Hall (toe) and Bashaud Breeland (hamstring).