In baseball’s 162-game season, close games leave one feeling ambiguously, no matter the result: You got lucky this time, but be careful next time; you got unlucky this time, but you’ll get ‘em next time. In football’s 16-game season, though, that is not the proper response: You must be happy with a win and sad about a loss, no matter how close each was. And you must draw broader lessons, because winning close games is something of its own skill—chiefly, it’s about minimizing your own mistakes and exploiting your opponents’ (and your opponent will always make mistakes). And winning close games just may be the most important skill in the NFL.
Which is why the Washington Redskins’ 27-24 loss last night, at home, to the Indianapolis Colts is more of a sucker punch than it should first appear. Sure, the loss was to the great Peyton Manning and his Colts, who are assuredly one of the best teams in the League—through Week 6, it seems clear that all the best teams are in the AFC—who already demolished NFC East rivals the New York Giants and will do the same to the Dallas Cowboys (surely) and the Philadelphia Eagles (likely).
But, ugh! The Skins failed to minimize their mistakes—I am thinking of the two interceptions Donovan McNabb (uncharacteristically) threw, particularly the one in the first quarter, as well as several instances of blown coverage, most notably on the Colts touchdown to receiver Pierre Garçon. And they failed to capitalize on their opponents’—I am thinking of the anywhere between two and four dropped interceptions (though the Skins did force, and I mean force, three fumbles). The brightest spot was the rushing game, which finally got off the ground (or, rather, on the ground), with prior no-name practice-squad regular Ryan Torain accomplishing 100 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. On its face, falling to 3-3 after playing two or three of your five toughest games of the season (this one, plus last week’s victory over the Green Bay Packers, plus the win two weeks ago in Philly) still gives the Skins a pretty strong playoff shot. But only if they get better at—say it with me—minimizing their mistakes and exploiting their opponents’ to the fullest. At winning close games.
Want a clinic on how to win a close game? Then study the New England Patriots, who yesterday at home against the surging Baltimore Ravens came back from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to send the game into overtime, played ferocious D there, and kicked the winning field goal, 23-20. The last time these two played, it was also in Massachusetts, it was the first round of last year’s playoffs, and New England was humiliated. This time around, the Pats showed that their effective trade of future Hall of Fame-er Randy Moss for former Super Bowl MVP (for the Pats, no less) Deion Branch may have been worth it indeed: Tom Brady connected with Branch for nine receptions, 98 yards, and a crucial fourth quarter touchdown. There are still issues with their defensive secondary—they allowed Baltimore QB Joe Flacco a stellar 285-yard, two-touchdown, zero-interception day—but, crucially, they protected their home turf (they went 8-0 in Foxboro during last year’s regular season, and are 3-0 this year), which they will need to continue to do if they are to make the playoffs while competing in the same division as the for-real New York Jets and the maybe-real Miami Dolphins as well as the same conference as Baltimore, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Denver Broncos. Oh, and the Colts. The AFC is brutal.
The Detroit Lions are a bad team that are not as bad as everyone thinks they are, and the New York Giants’ 28-20 victory over them yesterday, at home, isn’t quite as sour as some would think. But still: Should it really have been this close? When Eli Manning for once didn’t throw an interception? When primary back Ahmad Bradshaw was running with abandon and goal-line back Brendan Jacobs was powering his way to two touchdowns? When the Giants’ furious pass rush knocked Lions starter Shaun Hill (himself the back-up QB, playing for the injured Matthew Stafford) out of the game? Why is the supposedly vaunted Giants defense, playing at home, allowing the third-string quarterback of a basement-dwelling team to put together a respectable 222-yard, one touchdown/one interception effort? (That QB, incidentally, was Drew Stanton, a Michigan State grad who is, according to Wikipedia, Jewish. Which means the Lions played a Jewish QB but the Giants, with Sage Rosenfels waiting in the wings, did not.) When breakout Lions rookie running back Jahvid Best was effectively corralled? When the game was never truly iced until a late-minutes interception that was in part dependent on the Lions’ desperation?
There was something fishy about this win, and the Giants, who moved into a tie for first in the NFC East with the (very impressive-looking) Eagles, still have a lot of work to do. Then again, with only 16 games, you take the win and you be glad for it.
Our record: 11-6.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.