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After bye week, Redskins say hello to Patriots

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ASHBURN, Va. — The Washington Redskins returned to practice on Monday after a much-needed bye to recuperate and re-evaluate.

Unfortunately, their reward is the NFL’s most unenviable task: A date with the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots on the road this Sunday.

The Redskins don’t even get the true benefit of the bye, extra time to prepare for the upcoming opponent.

The Patriots haven’t played since last Thursday’s blowout of Miami and also had a break over the weekend to rest. Few, if any, give Washington (3-4) much chance.

“On paper, it looks like (a mismatch), but that’s motivation for us, obviously,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “Really, anytime you have a chance to play a football game on Sunday in Foxborough, you’ve got to be ready to play, mentally and physically.

“… We know what’s at stake. We know how good they are, how well-coached they are, how well-prepared they are.”

The Redskins still find themselves in the thick of the NFC East title chase if only because no one has yet run away from the pack. Both the New York Giants (4-4) and Dallas Cowboys (2-5) lost on Sunday. The Philadelphia Eagles (3-4) also had a bye.

Washington still has four division games left and owns a win over the Eagles and has yet to play Dallas. It’s possible an eight-win team will win the division title.

That lends some hope to a team that hasn’t had any the last two seasons. But the Redskins feel like things could have been better than that through seven games.

“We’re in a good place,” defensive end Jason Hatcher said. “We’ve just got to win, man. When you look back on it — the Atlanta (loss), Miami. Close games. We could have been sitting so good right now. Dang it. It’s just so hard to win in this league.”

REPORT CARD

–PASSING OFFENSE: C. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has maintained his job, which is a win. But he’s also been up and down with eight interceptions, three fumbles, including one he lost. Is he the player who had 317 passing yards against Tampa Bay? Or the turnover machine who has had two-interception games four times? Either way, the Redskins can move the ball through the air. But they rank 28th in the NFL in passing yards per play (6.28). Maybe this group can take a step forward once deep threat DeSean Jackson returns.

–RUSHING OFFENSE: D. Great early and then turned into a disaster. Running backs Alfred Morris and rookie Matt Jones took turns topping 100 rushing yards in the first two games. Since then, Washington hasn’t moved the ball consistently on the ground. Some blame can go to injuries on the offensive line where left guard Shawn Lauvao (ankle) is on injured reserve and center Kory Lichtensteiger (neck) has missed two games. But Morris, in a contract year, doesn’t look like the same player who as a rookie averaged 4.8 yards per carry. Washington has to get him more involved. Four times this year Morris has run the ball 11 times or fewer.

–PASS DEFENSE: C. If we graded on a curve it might be an “A.” Few teams have been hit as hard by injuries at one position. Chris Culliver hasn’t played since Oct. 4 and was suspended for another game. DeAngelo Hall hasn’t played since Sept. 24. Bashaud Breeland (hamstring) might not play this week and he, too, was suspended for one game. Washington gives up 7.28 passing yards per play, 23rd overall. But with a patchwork secondary made up of journeymen and players signed off the street that number could be so much worse.

–RUN DEFENSE: D. It was good early, but the returns haven’t been there for the revamped defensive line. Too many missed tackles in recent weeks have highlighted a fraying unit. Now left outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan (broken right hand) is hurt. Nose tackle Terrance Knighton has made a big difference in the middle. But teams are attacking the Redskins on the outside. What was once the NFL’s top team against the run is a disastrous 30th (128.4 rushing yards per game)

–SPECIAL TEAMS: C. “Better” is a relative description for a unit that was atrocious in 2013 and only marginally improved last season. At least their assistant coach hasn’t drawn a penalty this season. That happened two years ago. The Redskins did lose a game to Miami on a punt return. But they’ve also made positive plays for the first time in years — Rashad Ross’ 101-yard kick return against the New York Giants, a recovered onside kick, a blocked punt for a touchdown, a field-goal kicker (Dustin Hopkins) who is accurate and has a leg strong enough for consistent touchbacks. They can still get better on punt and kick coverage — but Rome wasn’t built in a day, either.

–COACHING: B. To take a group with seven key players, four of them starters, on injured reserve by the end of the third game and still start out 3-4 has to reflect well on the coaching staff. Add in the revolving door at cornerback, injuries on the offensive line and to wide receiver DeSean Jackson and it’s a wonder the Redskins have three wins, let alone the close losses to Miami and Atlanta. Washington could easily be .500 at this point, which no one predicted.

Coach Jay Gruden’s offense hasn’t been perfect. Defensively, Joe Barry’s group seems like it could fall apart at any moment thanks to injury and gaping holes at certain positions (inside linebacker, safety). There are still issues here and no one knows if new general manager Scot McCloughan plans on keeping this group around. But the staff has managed games well. Quarterback Kirk Cousins’ three game-winning or game-tying drives of 80 yards or more were all made possible because Washington had all o


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