A funny thing happened last Sunday on the way to what was supposed to be a blowout of the winless Colts, as a 31-3 game turned into a need for New England to handle an onside kick to ensure victory. The felt-like-a-loss win left a sour taste in the mouths of Patriots players and coaches. This week, they have another chance to take a big step forward on the road against the middling 4-8 Redskins. While the Patriots have never won at FedEx field under Bill Belichick, there are high hopes that the team will get things going well enough and early enough on both sides of the ball to roll to the victory over Mike Shanahan's team. And, if the Jets lose, also clinch the AFC East. Another week brings another rare Sunday-at-1 game. Until the traditional kickoff time in the country's capital, tear open this monumentally historic Washington edition of the Friday Six-Pack!
2. Say Helu to their little runner - Roy Helu was a fourth-round pick in last April's draft, seen as a third-down or change-of-pace guy. But he's taken over the starting job in Washington and taken advantage of the opportunity. He's topped 100 yards the last two weeks and is averaging 4.7 yards a carry. He also catches the ball out of the backfield, having set a franchise record with 14 receptions in a game earlier this season. He's the team's third-leading receiver. The New England defense has been solid against the run all year, ranking 10th in the league. But Helu is a bit of an athletic unknown for them to deal with this week. Jerod Mayo will spend a lot of time chasing Helu both in the running and passing games, as could Gary Guyton and the rest of the Patriots linebackers. I find it hard to believe that the rookie will carry the Redskins by himself on offense, but he does seem to be the most dangerous option for Washington at this point as the lead dog in the Shanahan family's one-cut running game.
3. Fast start - The Patriots have scored a touchdown on offense just once in the last seven games. That's a bit misleading for last Sunday, as Brady pointed out on NFL Network, when the Patriots had just one first-quarter drive. Regardless. I'd like to see the offense get back to what it was doing each of the first five games when it scored at least one touchdown ( and two in Buffalo) in each of the first quarters. The Redskins are no stiffs on defense, with playmakers up front and in the back end - including the hot-and-cold DeAngelo Hall. I expect Brady and Co. take advantage of Hall as well as Washington's suspect safety group, that will be without a guy that I think is pretty overrated in LaRon Landry. I'd expect the tight ends to take advantage of the middle of the field yet again. But in the end the fast start is about executing. That means good protection, good throws, good routes and good catches. The Patriots obviously have the talent and ability to get hot early, they just need to get back to doing it on the field.
4. Slow finish - I'd expect the Patriots to establish a lead in this one that should allow for New England to get the running game involved in a big way in the second half. Belichick and Bill O'Brien never gave the running backs the chance to run the game out against Indy. They need to show that ability at some point, and this is a good week to prove it. BenJarvus Green-Ellis hasn't gotten the carries down the stretch that he got a year ago. He hasn't been as productive as he was last fall, either. The line is always looking for a chance to prove itself on the ground. The backs always willing to do the same. When the Patriots have been at their best over the years down the stretch, they've gotten the running game going a bit in December. Look for that to happen again this month, probably this week. Even if the load continues to be spread a bit, Stevan Ridley is chomping at the bit to get more carries as well. Get a lead early and run the clock out with long, slow, ground-based drives in the fourth quarter.
5. Suspension belief - The Redskins took a huge blow with the suspension of left tackle Trent Williams and tight end Fred Davis. With Williams out of action, Andre Carter will be going against a backup in this meeting with his former employer. My money says that Carter gets over the 10-sack plateau on the season in this game and has an impressive performance. I get the feeling he'd really like to prove something to his former team. While Williams being out gives the Patriots a better chance to pressure the quarterback, Davis' absence takes pressure off the middle of the New England defense. Davis is Washington's leading receiver. The Patriots have had problems with the middle of the field, although that could improve with the likelihood that Patrick Chung should get back in action at safety. But the Redskins don't have a ton of great weapons, even with Santana Moss returning to health. Jabar Gaffney is solid, as Patriots fans are well aware. But after Gaffney, Helu and Moss, another former Patriot in Donte Stallworth is next in line with just 10 catches. New England's defense needs to take full advantage of the holes the NFL drug suspensions have put in the Redskins offense.
6. Rex in effect - Rex Grossman is what he is. A gunslinger. A guy who can make plays for both teams. A guy with more confidence than talent. A guy who might score more points for the Patriots in this one than for the Redskins. He's loose with the ball at times and that could give Kyle Arrington a chance to improve on his impressive interception total, thanks to that football magnet he seems to have in his chest this season. Or maybe Devin McCourty can finally get his first interception of the season. Grossman's also lost three fumbles on the year, so maybe Carter can get a turnover for the defensive front. Grossman has kept the Redskins in games when he's played, but he's still a guy with 15 interceptions compared to 10 touchdowns on the season and a 69.8 passer rating. I know the Patriots pass defense remains a struggling work in progress, but this should be a chance to make some progress. Chung could give that a boost in the secondary. Grossman could give it a boost with his play.
There is little doubt that the Patriots are the better team with, wait for it....the better quarterback and coach. That shows up yet again as Brady makes plays against what I think is an overrated Redskins secondary. I think the Patriots will finally get off to a fast start, probably helped out by a Grossman-led turnover from Washington. I think one of Grossman's problems is that he's not as good as he thinks he is. That means he won't play it safe and conservative like, say, Dan Orlovsky. That will cost the Redskins, a team that is tied for 30th in the NFL with a minus-13 turnover ratio for the season. The Patriots pass early, run late, get some turnovers and roll to a victory that everyone - fans, coaches and players - can feel good about. This is the win they should have had last week, as New England goes to Washington for the 34-13 victory. And maybe if the Jets can choke against Kansas City, it will be one of those hat-and-t-shirt games that Tedy Bruschi loved as the Patriots could clinch the AFC East as an early holiday gift for fans!