- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 3, 2019

London Fletcher looked up at the video board in disbelief. He saw the score and time. Patriots 31, Redskins 0. And it was only midway through the third quarter. He muttered to no one in particular, ‘Man, you’ve got to be kidding me.’

Recalling the moment 12 years later, the former Redskins linebacker lets out a deep breath.

“You’re bringing back bad memories,” Fletcher said over the phone.

That afternoon, the Redskins lost 52-7 — their largest margin of defeat since 1961. For four quarters, quarterback Tom Brady, then 30, dissected Washington’s defense. He threw three touchdowns and even rushed for a career-high two scores.

It was Brady at his peak.

On Sunday at FedEx Field, the Redskins will face an older Brady — he’s 42 now — who. logic would seem to dictate, is past his prime. But the 19-year veteran is just months removed from his most recent Super Bowl title and has shown little sign of slowing down.

Because the Patriots play in the AFC, this will be only his fifth time facing the Redskins.

Given his age, it could also be the last. Brady plans to play until he’s 45, but even then, he won’t face Washington again unless he switches teams or they meet in the Super Bowl. (Don’t hold your breath.) After Sunday, the Redskins are not scheduled to face the Patriots again until 2023.

Brady may not have a storied history of destroying the Redskins, but the defenders who have faced him in those four games still have horror stories.

“It’s like having surgery,” former Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot says, “and the doctor gave you no anesthetic, so you feel everything.”

No margin for error

The first meeting between Brady and the Redskins may be the most surprising: Washington won. On Sept. 28, 2003, the Redskins picked off Brady three times and prevailed 20-17.

In hindsight, the victory is especially hard to comprehend given two things. That year, Washington finished 5-11, leading to the dismissal of Steve Spurrier. And after the loss, the Patriots ran the table — ripping off 15 straight wins, finishing as the Super Bowl champions.

“That game is really a tale of two seasons,” said former Redskin Matt Bowen, who is now an analyst for ESPN.

The hardest part about facing Brady is his anticipation said Bowen, who played safety. No matter what the Redskins tried before the snap, Brady would recognize what the defense was trying to do

Using just his eyes, Brady can manipulate defenders, subtly moving linebackers by looking one way and firing off to a newly created window to find the receiver.

“He does that almost every drop-back pass,” Bowen said.

It makes preparing for Brady a nightmare.

During his playing career, Smoot said he wanted to be aware of his own weaknesses as a player — especially when it came to preparing for the Patriots. He knew Brady was the type of quarterback who could exploit any flaw or tendency a player revealed on film. And if that player was good enough to not reveal those tendencies on game day, Brady would simply move on until he found another player to pick on, Smoot said.

“He really makes us a prisoner of our defensive coordinator,” Smoot said. “If our defensive coordinator puts us in Cover 3, he’s going to throw hitches all day. If he puts us in Cover 2, he’s going to move to the tight end or running back real quick.

“(Brady) is only going to go to the weakness of the defense.”

Getting Brady off his game isn’t impossible, but it’s not an easy task. The Redskins were able to prevail in 2003 because they relentlessly generated pressure. Bowen said Washington relied on quarters coverage to take away New England’s crossing routes.

But the Redskins are 0-3 against Brady since.

The 2007 matchup, in particular, is the third-largest margin of victory in Brady’s career. Smoot distinctly remembers the cannon that fired off at Gillette Stadium after every Patriots’ score.

“They shot so many cannons, I literally thought I was in World War II,” Smoot said. “They just scored so many points.”

Reinventing the wheel

When Bowen studies the Patriots’ offense, he sees all the routes and concepts that have become staples in the Brady and Bill Belichick era. He even sees some overlap in player skill sets.

But the Patriots haven’t won six Super Bowls with Brady by doing the same things year after year. Instead, New England has tinkered with its approach — from revolutionizing football in 2007 with relying on the shotgun, to keeping defenses off balance with a variety of formations and personnel groupings.

The Patriots’ history of matchups against the Redskins highlight the franchise’s ability to adapt.

The 2007 massacre featured Brady throwing to the likes of Randy Moss and Wes Welker. In 2011, when the Patriots won 34-27, tight end Robert Gronkowski took over with 160 yards and two touchdowns. Four years later, LeGarrette Blount rushed for 129 yards in a 27-10 win.

Brady is the engine at the center of it all.

“12 runs the show,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said.

Four wins into 2019, and Brady is still playing at a high level. He ranks 15th in passing yards and New England has the ninth-most efficient offensive in the league, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings.

The Patriots have a deep threat (Josh Gordon), a steady slot receiver (Julian Edelman) and a pass catching back (James White), all of whom should pose problems for a struggling Redskins defense.

Washington, understandably, is a significant underdog.

“(Brady‘s) considered to be the greatest of all time for a reason,” Fletcher said. “The way he continues to challenge himself and never be satisfied with what he’s accomplished. He’s definitely the fiercest competitor I’ve ever faced at the quarterback position.”

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