The Patriots have an outside chance to clinch the AFC East on Sunday afternoon in Washington. A Patriots win coupled with a little help from the Kansas City Chiefs would give New England its eighth division title in the last nine years.
The Redskins have lost seven of their last eight games and sit in last place in the NFC East. However, since coming to New England, Bill Belichick has a 3-5 record against Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, including playoff games. While Shanahan’s success came with Denver, Washington has a few players that can change a game, particularly on defense.
Here are three areas to watch for on Sunday afternoon:
-- The Redskins’ defense has been an aggressive unit, sending extra pressure on 42.2 percent of dropbacks (fifth-most in the NFL). The extra pressure has been effective, as the Redskins recorded sacks on 8.9 percent of extra-pressure dropbacks, seventh in the league. However, the Patriots offensive line is among the best at picking up the pressure, allowing sacks on only 4.8 percent of extra-pressure dropbacks.
On Sunday, the Patriots will have to deal with bookend outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan (6.5 sacks) and Brian Orakpo (6 sacks). Orakpo is a dynamic pass rusher who does a good job disrupting passing lanes. Orakpo’s four passes defended ties for sixth among outside linebackers. Matt Light’s ankle looked OK on Sunday against Indianapolis, but Orakpo’s speed and strength is worrisome for a left tackle not far removed from a walking boot. On the left side of the defense, Kerrigan also has been a force against the run. The Redskins defense is allowing 3.6 yards per rush to the offense’s right, eighth in the league, and Kerrigan has registered three tackles for a loss.
-- At this point in his career, Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman is pretty much a known commodity. Grossman is susceptible to turnovers, with the third-most interceptions in the league (15). That can't be blamed on a high volume of attempts, as Grossman has thrown an interception once every 21.1 pass attempts, second-worst in the league (behind Carson Palmer).
The running game is the key to Washington’s offense, as Grossman’s 9.8 yards per pass attempt on play action is fifth-best in the NFL. When the Redskins rush for 100 yards this season, they are 3-1 (1-7 when held under 100 yards). Roy Helu has been excellent in the last two weeks for the Redskins, rushing for 208 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Redskins use Helu on screen passes frequently (eight catches for 73 yards on screens in the last two weeks, both NFL highs). The Patriots will try to limit Helu on Sunday and force Grossman to beat them downfield.
-- One major factor in the Patriots’ favor is the suspensions of standout tight end Fred Davis and starting left tackle Trent Williams. Both will miss the final four games of the season for violating the NFL's policy and program for substance abuse. Losing Davis is a big blow to an already anemic passing game, as Davis leads the team in targets, catches, yards and 30-plus-yard receptions. Among tight ends, Davis is third in the league in receiving yards (796) and tied for first in 30-plus-yard receptions (five).
Williams was the fourth overall pick and first tackle selected in the 2010 draft. His absence will continue a season-long trend of personnel inconsistency on the offensive line. On Sunday, the Redskins will deploy their seventh offensive line combination this season, and losing Williams really hurts Washington’s ability to keep Grossman upright. With Williams on the field, Grossman has been sacked once every 20.2 dropbacks. Without Williams, however, Grossman has been sacked once every nine dropbacks. Veteran Sean Locklear or rookie Willie Smith will be expected to fill Williams’s significant void. Either way, the Patriots pass rush should have a major advantage on Sunday.