Redskins' Fletcher has gotten good look at this year's Giants, Pats
Redskins went 2-1 against Giants, Pats this year, almost won all three games
Emergence of Victor Cruz, better health on defense led to Giants' late surge
Pats' offense is explosive, but the Giants are capable of matching their scoring
INDIANAPOLIS -- Sure, they seem unbeatable now. Dare we say, even super. The Patriots enter this week with a league-best 10-game winning streak that began in mid-November, and the Giants are on yet another improbable and magical postseason run, with five consecutive elimination-game victories to their credit and a world of mojo in their favor.
But there is one team in the NFL that didn't exactly cower when it went up against New York and New England this season, and it's one of the more unlikely candidates to be discussing how to handle this year's Super Bowl qualifiers: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 5-11, last-place Washington Redskins.
Facts are facts. The Redskins went 2-0 against the NFC East champion Giants this season, and were the only team to beat them twice, with each being a convincing, double-digit margin of victory. Washington won 28-14 in the regular-season opener at FedEx Field, and again in Week 15 at MetLife Stadium, the last time Tom Coughlin's team has lost. The Giants were booed by their own crowd that day in falling 23-10 to the Redskins, and by dropping to 7-7, New York pushed itself to the brink of playoff-race elimination.
The Redskins couldn't quite duplicate their dominance of the Giants against New England, but they came ridiculously close, losing 34-27 to the visiting Patriots in Week 14. The teams traded punches almost throughout the game, with a game-tying Redskins touchdown taken off the board by an offensive pass interference call on receiver Santana Moss with 1:09 remaining. New England hung on to victory thanks to Jerod Mayo's interception of a tipped pass off Moss' hands at the Patriots' 5 with 20 seconds left.
Washington rolled up a season-high 463 yards of offense against New England in the game, and so frustrated the Patriots with their ability to hang around that quarterback Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien wound up getting into that celebrated sideline screaming match following Brady's fourth-quarter end zone interception. It was Brady's first pick in more than a month, and one of only a handful of red-zone interceptions in his storied career.
So, to review, in back-to-back weeks in mid-December it was the Redskins who narrowly lost in the final seconds to the eventual AFC champion Patriots and then proceeded to embarrass the eventual NFC champion Giants on their own home turf. Not a bad feather in the cap for a reeling Redskins team that lost 10 of its final 12 games after a hopeful 3-1 start to 2011.
I caught up with Redskins inside linebacker London Fletcher after an NFC Pro Bowl practice last week in Hawaii, and asked him to help me explain how Washington became the Kryptonite of sorts for both Super Bowl teams this season. If Washington had fared as well against the rest of the league as it did against New York and New England this year, Fletcher might have had to skip the Pro Bowl for a much bigger game.
How is it that the Redskins finished last in the division and yet made the Giants look bad twice this season?
"With the Giants, it's just a case of that we know them very well, play them twice a year and have been going against those guys for a number of years now. It's the same coaching staff that has been there for the whole time I've been in Washington, and even before then. Their offense isn't going to change. They are what they are, and they're pretty good at what they do. I guess we just have the right guys to match up pretty well with them in our defensive front seven, and in coverage-wise, in what we do in the back end.''
How was the Giants team you beat by 13 points in Week 15 in New Jersey different from the Giants team you beat by 14 points at home in Week 1?
"In the first game, [Giants second-year receiver] Victor Cruz wasn't the player yet that he turned into as the season went on. He was just a first-time starter, getting to be that nickel guy slot receiver. But by the time we played again, he was really their go-to guy, their No. 1 guy, so that was a big difference for them offensively.
"And on the defensive side, health was an issue for them early on. They just weren't very healthy on the defensive front, in particular at the defensive ends. But they got healthy later in the season, so that and the emergence of Cruz from Week 1 to Week 15 were the two biggest changes.''
You were the last team to beat the Giants, but did you have any inkling they had a run like this in them when you left the field that day at MetLife Stadium?
"No, not particularly. One thing I think that kind of went a little bit overlooked was when we played them, they were coming off the big win at Dallas in that [Week 14] Sunday night game. It was obvious there was a little bit of a letdown for them when they played us. They weren't at the same emotional peak as against the Cowboys.
"But again, we match up well against them. But to say I thought they'd get on the roll that they're on? No, I didn't think that at all. To their credit, they did what they needed to do to get where they're at. They got hot.''
We saw this kind of playoff, late-season roll out of the Giants in 2007 as well, but is this one even more surprising in some ways, given that they were 7-7 and fighting for their postseason lives after they lost to the Redskins?
"Yes and no. I guess I am surprised, but not really, because you knew once they got into the playoffs, it's anybody's tournament to win. And they got healthy at the right time and the defense started playing great at the right time. They started playing with great confidence, and those things make a huge difference. In a one-game situation, with the way Eli Manning is playing, we can't be too surprised by what the Giants have done.''
To have beaten them twice, does it tell you how close the talent gap is in the NFC East, and how narrow the difference really is between first place and last place in that division?
"It definitely does. The NFC East is a pretty competitive division every year. Week in and week out it's going to be a battle. We beat the Giants. The Giants beat the Cowboys. The Cowboys beat us. And the Eagles beat the Giants [late in the year]. We all feel like we can win that division, and if we get in the tournament we can do real damage.''
The day you played New England, you answered almost everything the Patriots threw at you, and wound up with the Redskins' best day offensively all season. But what was that game like defensively for Washington?
"We knew it was going to be a tough game going in, facing that offense they have with all those weapons. Obviously it starts with Tom Brady and his greatness, but now you add those two tight ends that they have with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, to go with Wes Welker and Deion Branch, and it's just a tremendous challenge that you face because of their offensive pace, the formations they have, and the no-huddle. It's definitely the ultimate challenge play in and play out against that offense.''
Speaking of Gronkowski, he had a huge day against the Redskins (six catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns), and clearly Washington struggled to tackle him. What's it's like when you have him coming at you in the open field?
"Well, you're talking about a guy who's 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, and he's a tough guy to bring down. He runs well, has great hands, and you definitely have to try to wrap him up and run through him. You've got to get as many guys as possible on him, but even then he's a tough guy to bring down.''
You've played against Tom Brady plenty when you were in Buffalo, and even faced him in the Super Bowl 10 years ago, when New England beat your Rams. When you face him, do you have to be as sharp mentally as you do physically that day?
"Absolutely, because of his level of preparation. Because he's going to know you, he's going to study you, and know what you're going to do and what you like to do. So you've got to be on top of your assignments and execution, because it's going to be as much a mental game as it is physical against Brady.''
How different is today's Patriots team from the one you played against in that Super Bowl 10 years ago this week, with them winding up winning three rings in four years?
"It's a totally different offense. It's more of a spread offense, and obviously they have much more of a passing offense now than they did 10 years ago. Back when I played them in the Super Bowl, they had a running game, with that big Antowain Smith back there. They didn't have much of a wide-open offense at all. But to their credit, and coach Belichick's credit, he's adjusted and transformed to their strengths and it's worked well for them.''
Having played both of these teams recently, how do they match up today, knowing that New York beat New England at Gillette Stadium in Week 9?
"I think it's going to be a great matchup, because you think about the Giants and their pass rush being healthy now, and then you know all about the offense of the Patriots and those tights ends and their passing game. It's going to be a great matchup between those two teams, and the thing is, both defenses are playing great right now. I think New England's defense is playing its best ball of the year right now, and so are the Giants.''
Can the Giants throw enough and score enough to keep up with the Patriots' passing game?
"Yeah, they can keep up. They have that potential. When you think about those three receivers they have, in Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham, they can score and score quickly. And then Eli is playing lights out football, so they have a great passing game as well. It's not just New England.''
Care to make your Super Bowl prediction right here on SI.com?
"Nah. I don't want to have to pick it. But I do think it'll be a great game, and a close game.''