End better than beginning for McCourty

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End better than beginning for McCourty

LANDOVER, Md. -- You can look at Devin McCourty's performance on Sunday two ways:

1. He made some excellent plays against the Redskins and finally looked, if only a glimmer, like the Patriots Pro Bowl cornerback of 2010.

2. Any positive steps McCourty took are lost, buried under the big picture avalanche of surrendered yardage.

He's trying to hover around No. 1.

"I'm just trying to play," McCourty said after the game. "Trying not to think about the struggles, trying not to go into that and just trying to play and help the team win. That's what my focus is now."

There's that sticky little word: 'Try.' No one doubts McCourty is trying to play football at an elevated level -- at the high standard he set last season -- it's just that it's not happening. Worse, his blunders have been costly.

Rex Grossman connected with Donte Stallworth on Washington's first scoring drive for 51 yards. It was third-and-9; McCourty was in coverage. Grossman was in trouble on the Redskins' next series. Facing third-and-18, he fired short right to Jabar Gaffney. McCourty was there and the pass went incomplete, but he was whistled for pass interference. Back to first-and-10. Washington got a touchdown five plays later.

This is New England's only cornerback who was not a free agent or claimed off waivers.

"I have to credit to my teammates and my coaches just kept telling me to fight and keep playing. Just personally feel like I was letting the team down in the first half. Some bad plays, stupid plays."

As noted, he did break out. In a way.

McCourty grabbed what should have been his first interception of 2011 during the second quarter. But an Andre Carter roughing-the-passer penalty knocked out the pick and 21-yard return. Still, it was a step.

He took another in the third quarter by forcing a Grossman incompletion on second-and-8. A fourth-quarter breakup on third-and-10, with Washington down just seven points, felt like a leap. McCourty was amped. He jumped up, flexed, bumped his teammates.

For weeks he's felt 'close'. This time, he was there.

"It was just the emotion of the game and being able to make a play, help the team," he said. "Just going out there and playing. Forgetting what happened and just getting in the game and having some fun."

The relief he felt was a measure of how far he's fallen. Pass break-ups? That's a cornerback's bread and butter not reason to celebrate. That's the kind of season it's been: a battle for consistency. The separated shoulder suffered a month ago doesn't help. McCourty is clearly still not himself. Whether it's being right there with Stallworth on that 51-yard catch but not making a play on the ball, or struggling to get dressed after the game, limited mobility is an issue.

It's just not the only issue. McCourty knows that and remains accountable.

"The secondary as a whole has grown together. I think now is the strongest part of all of us together, having each others back. Today was a prime example: me making some bad plays early and all those guys sticking behind me and saying 'Let's go! Let's go!' As a whole, we believe in each other and we believe in this defense."

Is Sunday's flash enough to support that belief, to give it legs for the playoffs? McCourty still has some time. Three weeks.

PFF: Collins is 'the best linebacker in the AFC'

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PFF: Collins is 'the best linebacker in the AFC'

He may have been left off of the NFL Network's Top 100 list, but Jamie Collins isn't flying under the radar at Pro Football Focus.

On PFF's list of the top 10 defensive players in the AFC, the Patriots linebacker came in at No. 8 and was given the description as the top linebacker in the conference.

Collins' versatility within the confines of the Patriots defense is what makes him so valuable, PFF's John Kosko explains: 

"He doesn’t dominate in any one role like Luke Kuechly does in pass coverage and run defense, but he is very good at all facets of the game. Collins has the athleticism to cover TEs and HBs effectively, the explosiveness to rush the passer, and the size and strength to defend the run. 

"The former Southern Mississippi linebacker is arguably the most versatile player in the NFL, and allows Bill Belichick to employ a defense that confuses opposing quarterbacks. With the only knock against Collins being his 34 missed tackles the past two seasons, the Patriot is the best linebacker in the AFC."

Collins graded out as the No. 5 linebacker in football last year, per PFF's numbers. He ranked behind only Carolina's Luke Kuechly, Minnesota's Anthony Barr, Indianapolis' Jerrell Freeman and Seattle's KJ Wright. 

Fellow Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower earned the 10th-highest grade for linebackers last season, according to PFF -- a grade that likely would have been higher had his snap-count (602 in 2015) approached that of Collins (792).

While Collins is a rare physical talent, the argument could be made that it's Hightower who is the more important player to the Patriots defense given his prowess as a pass-rusher and run-defender. He also has myriad responsibilities as the extension of the team's coaching staff in the defensive huddle. 

In order to slow down opposing passing games, many Patriots defensive packages employ either five or six defensive backs and just two linebackers. Lucky for them, they have two of the best in the conference.

Both Collins and Hightower are entering contract years this year, and finding a way to keep them in-house figures to be near the top of the list of priorities for the Patriots front office.