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ON FOOTBALL

Losing, but in the right way

LANDOVER, Md. -- They had excuses but refused to use them. They had reasons to feel sorry for themselves but were angry at themselves instead.

They had explanations but chose not to use them.

In every case the New England Patriots had the right outlook on yesterday's 20-17 defeat at the hands of the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. They could have looked at that loss many ways and they chose the right way, which was to look at it in the only way that matters in the NFL. They lost a game they could have won.

Should have won might have been too strong a way to put it for a team that was missing nine starters, but could have is enough because in the NFL, as everyone in the Patriots locker room acknowledged, could have means just that.

"We should have won the game," linebacker Tedy Bruschi growled after he and his teammates nearly survived all those absentees but fell short on the final offensive play of the game when a Tom Brady pass sailed past tight end Daniel Graham on fourth down to preclude an attempt for a tying field goal. "To say it was a moral victory you're asking me to settle and I won't. I won't settle for any loss."

The scrappy Patriots did all they could not to settle on seeing their record slip to 2-2 but with five starters out on offense, four on defense, and Brady bothered by both a bad right elbow and a sore throwing shoulder, they were asking too much of themselves to hold off the NFL's top-rated offense. Too much, but not by much.

Had New England not turned the ball over four times (three interceptions and a critical Kevin Faulk fumble), things might have been different. Had Brady's final pass not been slightly behind Graham, things might have been different. Had Faulk not fumbled to start the second half and had the ball not been recovered at the New England 1, things might have been different.

Might have been. Maybe even should have been. But, in a bottom-line business like pro football, could have and should have mean little. All that means something is what didn't happen.

"We had them where we wanted them at the end," defensive end Richard Seymour said. "The stage was set for us to make one of those great comebacks, but this time we didn't do it. I'm proud of the way our guys fought back [after falling behind, 20-3]. We left it all out on the field. But just because we've got a lot of people out doesn't make losing acceptable. We played our hearts out but we still lost."

They did, but to those on the outside it seemed almost understandable. So many linebackers were hurt (Rosevelt Colvin, Mike Vrabel, and Ted Johnson) that the Patriots had to shift their base defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Their premier run stuffer, massive Ted Washington, was missing. Their offensive line had only two of its normal starters on the field, with Dan Koppen replacing Damien Woody at center, Russ Hochstein stepping in for Mike Compton at right guard, and Tom Ashworth replacing Adrian Klemm at right tackle.

Those were enough injuries to fill two episodes of "ER" but the game goes on, regardless. The injured and the infirm may be left behind but the games are played and yesterday the Patriots played as well as anyone could have expected. They came up short, but so what? The most important thing is they refused to accept that they had lost so many bodies that a loss was inevitable.

Because they refused to acknowledge the difficult circumstances they were in, the Patriots rose to the occasion. They didn't win, but they were not losers. They just didn't score enough points.

"Any time you can go out and fight, especially through all the adversity we faced this week, it's very reassuring," said safety Rodney Harrison, who has caused a few injuries over the years with his aggressive play and suffered a few because of it. "Guys didn't feel sorry for themselves. We didn't lay down. We always felt we had a chance to win the game right to the end. Even after the fumble we felt we had a chance if we could get a few three-and-outs and give our offense a chance. The guys fought and clawed. I don't know if I can take this as a moral victory but there are positives in every negative situation."

True, and in this case the positives were that they matched the 3-1 Redskins stride for stride all afternoon, outgaining them and producing more first downs, even when the people doing the striding were rookie nose tackle Dan Klecko or untested linebackers Matt Chatham and Don Davis or a handful of faceless young offensive linemen who stepped in and did what they needed to do -- remain faceless.

But the biggest loss was Washington, because he had first been acquired after the Redskins gashed New England's run defense in an exhibition game. Within three days of that game Bill Belichick traded a fourth-round pick to the Chicago Bears to acquire the four-time Pro Bowl nose tackle, but after he broke his leg last weekend the same problem that existed in August resurfaced at the worst of moments. The Redskins got the ball with 8:15 to play in the third quarter leading, 13-3. They ground the ball down the field, running exclusively on a five-play, 64-yard scoring drive to take a 20-3 lead.

Ted Washington had been acquired to stop such drives. He and Johnson were supposed to play a big part in stuffing the kinds of runs the Redskins were using, but both were sidelined yesterday when they were needed most. They were on the sofa and the interior of the Patriots' defense was on its back.

It didn't stay there long, though. The defenders got up, and for the rest of the afternoon gave the Redskins' offense nothing. Three-and-out, six-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out. It wasn't enough, but not by much.

The concern, though, is how long the Patriots can survive the kind of injuries they are living with. It's unlikely any of the defensive starters will be back next Sunday, while the offensive absentees remain a mystery for now. What does not is the looming presence of one of the most physical teams in the AFC, the Tennessee Titans.

The Titans arrive in Foxborough next Sunday at a most inopportune time. A year ago in Nashville, the Titans not only beat the Patriots on Monday night, they manhandled them. The Titans pushed the Patriots all over the field and now are heading to Foxborough to face a depleted opponent that may be hard-pressed to match such a physical style.

Injuries of the sort the Patriots have suffered to so many key players have a way of causing increasing problems. They were able to rally, but as one game turns into two and then three and then four it is difficult for a team missing nearly half its starters to hold up. That is why Seymour had a good suggestion.

"It's important we take care of our bodies during the week," Seymour said. "We're going to need everybody. We can't really afford anybody else getting hurt."

Those were wise words but so were ones uttered by Harrison, a realist who has seen many things in the NFL over the years and much of it has had to do with injuries and their ravaging effects on a team.

"If you play long enough you're going to be injured," Harrison said. "When it happens to a team, they have to understand the game is going to move on. It doesn't matter if you're the 53d guy on the roster. If you are called on, you have to step up because the game is going to be played."

Yesterday everyone the Patriots called on did. It wasn't enough to win, but it was enough to leave them with their pride intact. Now they must face a very physical opponent at a time when that's not really what they need. Sunday they get the Titans when they could use the Cardinals.

So it goes in a league where, as Harrison said, the games are going to be played regardless of your fitness to play them.

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