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.