LANDOVER, Md. - Tom Brady sat in his chair sideways, staring straight into his locker. He may have been replaying yesterday’s final Patriots series in his head. It was a drive that ended on a sour note and led to the Washington Redskins’ 20-17 victory.
One can only guess what Brady was thinking. Was it his three interceptions? Was it his inability to drill a pass to Daniel Graham on fourth down as a wide open Larry Centers stood at the first-down marker? Perhaps it was the play-calling. A draw play on third down? Why not the trademark dink-and-dunk rather than longer passes with 1:45 remaining and New England on the Redskins 45? Why not a 55-yard field goal attempt with Adam Vinatieri’s ability to connect in clutch situations?
In the end, as Brady and many of his teammates would comment, their “gutsy” performance didn’t matter. The fact that they showed “character” and played so hard despite having nine starters out with injuries didn’t matter.
As Richard Seymour put it, “We had them right where we wanted them. The stage was set for a late-game comeback.”
“It feels like a loss,” said Tedy Bruschi. “It is a loss.”
The Redskins certainly were good stagehands. On their last drive, they committed three false starts - moving back from their 22 to their 7 - and Bryan Barker was forced to punt from deep in his end zone.
His kick was downed at the Washington 45, and 83,632 fans were shaking in their boots.
The drive started with Brady firing incomplete to Deion Branch. Next came a 5-yard toss to Centers. On third and 5, Centers ran a draw up the middle for 2 yards. It was fourth and 3 at the 38 with 43 seconds left when Brady tried to drill a 20-yard pass to Graham. The ball was thrown slightly behind the second-year tight end and was broken up Ifeanyi Ohalete. Game over.
“It wasn’t thrown behind me,” said Graham. “The safety made a great play.”
Centers, his emotions running high playing against his former teammates - he drew an unnecessary roughness penalty for a head hit on Jeremiah Trotter - explained, “When I’m standing at the sticks, to see the ball sail down the field . . .” It sounded like a criticism of Brady, but the fullback retreated and said, “The quarterback saw an open man down the field, where I was didn’t matter.” On the draw play, Centers reasoned, “If it works it’s a great call.”
Brady defended the play-calling. “We’re trying to catch them off guard [on the draw],” he said. “We should make those plays no matter what’s called.”
Vinatieri said he had “54-ish” range on distance before the game. He had missed wide left in the third quarter from 46 yards, but said, “It doesn’t mean you can’t try it and you might make it.”
The defense, which had, out of necessity, rotated from a 4-3 to a 3-4 most of the game, built to a crescendo on the field. On the series before New England’s final drive, the defense was engulfing the Redskins, who were trying to run out the clock. Everything pointed toward the Patriots rallying from a 20-3 deficit on a day they could have packed it in.
“We were trying to run the clock out and make a few plays. We didn’t do a very good job of it,” said Redskins coach Steve Spurrier.
The Patriots caught a huge break when a third-down sideline pass from Patrick Ramsey to Laveranues Coles was ruled incomplete on the field and the decision upheld after a video review.
“All of our coaches up there [in the coaches’ box] said the officials would have given us the ball [after the review],” said Spurrier. “So we had our next run formation ready to go. And as it turns out, they didn’t give us the ball.”
After a battle between kickers John Hall and Vinatieri in the first half, the Patriots were fortunate to trail, 6-3, at the half. The Patriots were blitzing frequently. The offense was trying the gimmicks, including end arounds, a sure sign a team is hurting. Rookie Dan Klecko blocked a 48-yard field goal late in the first half, but it didn’t give the Patriots the needed momentum as Brady came up short on a throw to the end zone intended for Branch and was picked off by Ohalete.
“That one really [ticked] me off,” said Brady, who never mentioned his sore right elbow. “I just shouldn’t have thrown it.”
With 1:05 remaining in the half, the Patriots were driving again as Brady completed a 17-yard pass to Branch to the Redskins 44. Brady took another shot downfield, but Champ Bailey stepped in front of a pass intended for David Givens, ending the threat.
Things began to unravel in the third quarter when Kevin Faulk tried to sweep right and was caught flush by Bailey, who forced a fumble that was recovered by Matt Bowen at the New England 1. Ladell Betts slammed it in from there, giving the home team a 13-3 lead just 1:25 into the third quarter.
The Patriots made three first downs on their next possession, but then Vinatieri missed his first field goal of the season. The Redskins then drove it down the field; another missed opportunity for the Patriots came when Trung Canidate was stripped of the ball from behind by Tyrone Poole after a 20-yard run. The ball rolled to the 12, where Washington receiver Rod Gardner made the recovery. Moments later Rock Cartwright swept into the end zone from 3 yards out, giving Washington a 20-3 cushion with 5:15 remaining in the third.
The Redskins defense seemed to soften, mostly in their prevent formation. Washington allowed the Patriots to mount a 71-yard drive, highlighted by big passes to Antowain Smith (16 yards) and Troy Brown (20) and culminated by Brady’s perfectly thrown fade to Givens over Ade Jimoh for a 29-yard touchdown with 2:13 remaining in the third.
A third Brady interception, this time by Rashad Bauman, kept the Patriots at arm’s length early in the fourth, but New England wasn’t down for the count. With 3:34 remaining, the Patriots, starting at their 32, went right down the field. Brady completed consecutive passes of 22, 14, 15, and 12 yards before finding Centers open in the end zone from 7 yards. It was a 3-point game with 2:10 left.
And that’s where the hearts stopped and the staring began.