LANDOVER, Md. – They did it again, those Patriots.
Pulled out another 7-point victory after giving up a double-digit lead, stopping the Redskins on the game's final play and no doubt stopping countless hearts in the process.
From a press box perspective, these games shouldn't be this close. Not when your offense is mostly doing its part, scoring in the mid-to-upper 30s every game. The perception, from up above, is that confidence in the defense is draining. Even against opponents with lesser records, no score, no lead is safe.
The players see it differently.
They insist they're making gains each week. Including in this most recent victory, just the third Patriots win over a Washington team all time.
They point to the big plays.
Most notably, the one that won it for New England: Jerod Mayo's diving interception in the red zone with just seconds left on the clock. It was the second week in a row linebacker/co-captain registered a pick – the first two of his NFL career.
"I'm proud of Mayo," said cornerback and fellow co-captain Devin McCourty. "He made a big play, this week and last week. Being out there making plays as the leader of our defense, we kind of expect that from him."
Then there was Vince Wilfork's first career touchdown, which he scooped up in the end zone following an Andre Carter strip-sack of 'Skins QB Rex Grossman.
"I had to fight for it. Stuff like that," said Wilfork, another co-captain, "it's you against everybody else trying to fight for the ball. Luckily, I got it."
Even McCourty seemed to exhibit growth from the first half to the second. He broke up a number of passes, almost instinctively, in the second half the way he did last season as a rookie – an element of his game that has been sorely lacking all season.
"My teammates kind of kept my confidence at a steady level," he said later. Their support, throughout this challenging sophomore campaign, seems to have buoyed McCourty Sunday afternoon.
They point, as a team, to their success in the red zone. The Patriots gave up two touchdowns inside the 20, plus a pair of field goals.
"[In the] red zone," Wilfork pointed out, "defensively, you have to raise your level of play. You don't want to give seven points up. You don't want to give any points up, but … make them kick a field goal. Sometimes we've done that, sometimes we haven't. You have to have a critical play down in that area. To get out of danger, you have to make plays."
"They don't score, they don't win, that's the name of the game," offered safety James Ihedigbo. "You don't want to give up those yards in the first place, but once they get down there, we're like, 'Hey, they're not getting in the end zone. Everyone do your job, your responsibility.'"
The Patriots did that at the most critical of times, with the game hanging in the balance.
They are trying, it seems, not to lull themselves into a false sense of security, either.
"We started fast, but our defense," added Wilfork, "it's something we talk about as a football team, is start fast and finish. We started fast, but little stuff in the fourth quarter. To finish the game with an interception, you can't complain about that. It's something we have to continue to work on. A lot of things we can take from this game and move forward. That's what we'll do this week."
"When we watch [film], we recognize our mistakes, but we also see what we did well and why we were able to make plays," McCourty continued.
"I don't think there's any team in the NFL right now, if you ask them, will say, 'We feel comfortable, we're ready to play, we're playing our best football.' I think it's an on-going process. You have to keep getting better toward the end of the season. Nobody is playing their best football. We still have three more games and we have to try to get better in all those games.
"You've got to have that urgency. I think we are, and we're happy we got a win today. We know it won't be enough."
"We're moving in the right direction. Of course, there's things we have to correct. There's nothing bad about that," Ihedigbo remarked, then echoed McCourty's sentiments.
"No team in the NFL is playing perfect football right now. Every time you turn on that tape, there are things you need to correct. Jerod made a great play down there in the red area. Talk about finishing a football game. That's how you want to finish."