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Patriots’ defense shows up when it counts

Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo (51) celebrated with teammates after he made an interception in the fourth to help seal the win against the Redskins.

Andrew Cameron/Reuters

Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo (51) celebrated with teammates after he made an interception in the fourth to help seal the win against the Redskins.

LANDOVER, Md. - Style points hardly matter to the Patriots’ defense. Real ones? Now that’s a different story.

Maligned all season and ranked last in the NFL in total yards allowed and passing yards allowed, the Patriots have rifled through weekly roster changes and sent offensive players out to play defense, all in an attempt to keep opponents from scoring. Far from pretty, but through 13 games, at least when it comes to wins and losses, fairly effective.

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Yesterday’s 34-27 win over the Redskins at FedEx Field could serve as a microcosm of the Patriots’ defense this season: It let Washington march up and down the chewed-up turf almost at will for the first three quarters, but when it came time to determine a winner, plays and stops were made in the fourth.

After giving up nearly 400 yards through three quarters, the Patriots kept the Redskins off the scoreboard on their final three drives, forcing consecutive fourth-quarter punts before clinching the win with a Jerod Mayo interception at the 5-yard-line with 20 seconds left.

“We still have a long way to go to get better. This wasn’t our best performance,’’ said Mayo, who added a team-high nine tackles to his second interception of the season. “Back to the drawing board tomorrow, and hopefully we continue to improve.’’

There’s plenty of room for that, especially with the 10-3 Patriots charging toward the playoffs next month, where they’ll only face better offenses. Against the 4-9 Redskins and winless Colts the past two weeks, giving up a combined 51 points and 900 yards might indicate some trouble spots.

But, the Patriots would be quick to point out, they won both games.

The defense certainly had a hand in the latest win, early in the game and late. It forced a three-and-out on the Redskins’ opening possession, then gave the Patriots the lead on Washington’s next series when lineman Vince Wilfork recovered a fumble in the end zone.

Andre Carter, who spent the previous five seasons in Washington before being released in September and joining the Patriots, blindsided Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman, who lost the ball near the goal line. Wilfork, on one knee when Carter made the hit, pounced, then held on amid a massive pile of bodies.

“I had to fight for it. Stuff like that, it’s you against everybody else. Luckily, I got it,’’ said Wilfork. “We started fast, our defense. That’s something we’ve talked about doing as a football team, just start fast and finish.’’

Washington scored the next five times it had the ball, but even in that ugly stretch, the Patriots’ defense found some positives. Twice the Redskins drove inside the Patriots’ 10-yard line and couldn’t score touchdowns; counting the final-drive interception, the Patriots allowed just two touchdowns in the Redskins’ five red-zone possessions.

With the Redskins about to run a third-down play in the first quarter from the Patriots’ 1, the defensive line shifted prior to the snap, which forced a false-start penalty on tight end Logan Paulsen. Grossman, hit by Mayo as he threw on third down, was incomplete, with the Redskins settling for a field goal.

“[In the] red zone, you have to raise your level of play,’’ Wilfork said. “You don’t want to give 7 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.

“Red zone are critical plays. Basically, you’re in danger. To get out of danger, you have to make plays. You have to be able to get off the field, you have to be able to force them to kick a field goal or force turnovers. That’s a big, big area for us defensively.’’

Cornerback Devin McCourty, victimized by repeated pass plays in the first half - he also was called for a pass-interference penalty on a third-and-18 play - made two big deflections in the second half, including on third and 10 with 10:51 left that forced the Redskins’ final punt.

“I give credit to my teammates and coaches, they kept telling me to stick at it, keep playing. That helped me,’’ said McCourty, who also had a second-quarter interception nullified by a roughing-the-passer penalty on Carter. “[There was a] rough patch, just some bad plays, some stupid plays. To come back and try to help the team make plays at the end of the game was big. That’s what I’m trying to do.’’

They might not have played their way out of the stat cellar in select team categories, but the Patriot defenders came up with the right plays, at the right time, to fly home with yet another win.

They’ll take it, style points or not. Hey, even a beauty has a few blemishes.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.
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