LANDOVER. Md. -- The lasting image from the New England Patriots' great escape Sunday over the Washington Redskins came on the sideline, a quarterback and his offensive coordinator breathing fire in each other's direction.
Tom Brady was hot after tossing an end-zone interception that could have cost the Patriots the game. Bill O'Brien didn't like something Brady said -- it might have been Brady telling receiver Tiquan Underwood he needed to run a better route or make a better effort for the ball -- and O'Brien ripped off his headset and gave it back to Brady. Players and coaches stepped between them.
Such sideline fireworks between player and coach are rare from the businesslike Patriots, which is why it was such a hot topic of discussion afterward, even after Brady and O'Brien shared an embrace when the defense came up with a game-clinching interception.
A cooled-off Brady later said he deserved what came to him because of his interception, a classy response that quickly extinguished any potential controversy. O'Brien wasn't available to share his side of the spat, which figures to come up Tuesday when he holds his weekly conference call.
In a locker room full of less-than-satisfied players, the incident was downplayed from corner to corner. Offensive lineman Logan Mankins said he wasn't aware of it until after the game. Others made light of it while veteran running back Kevin Faulk, the team's longest tenured player, took a more serious tack.
"People are going to get intense. People are going to get heated," he said. "Everyone is going to talk about what happened at that moment, but is anybody going to talk about what happened three minutes later, when they were sitting beside each other talking about what we had to do the next series?"
Faulk is right. There doesn't seem to be any type of rift between Brady and O'Brien. This also isn't reflective of a team that is fraying at the seams.
More than anything, the defining image of the Patriots' win over the Redskins was a snapshot of frustration boiling over because the always-in-pursuit-of-perfection Brady wasn't at his best and his team still hasn't played a complete game entering the 15th week of the season. Time is running out.
Yes, the Patriots are 10-3 and in the race for the AFC's top seed, but Brady realizes that if the club doesn't fix some of the consistent problems that have been cropping up, the results will be similar to the last few years. It will be an early exit in the playoffs.
"We are capable of putting a lot of good plays together. We just need to do it consistently for 60 minutes," Brady said. "I think that is what you see out there. We had opportunities to make plays. For one reason or another we were just a little off. We are still working at it. There is nothing perfect in football, unless you are the Packers."
Brady might have been speaking solely about the offense, but he easily could have included the defense. The unit looks so porous at times, as it did again Sunday against the Redskins (463 net yards), that it has to be frustrating for Patriots followers to watch. Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said on NBC's "Sunday Night Football" that it's the worst secondary he's seen in New England in 10 years.
The defense did just enough to hold off the Redskins, the key coming inside the 20, where the Patriots limited Washington to two touchdowns in four trips.
"It was good enough today, but it probably won't be good enough any other week," linebacker Jerod Mayo acknowledged.
Can the Patriots really win a championship with this D? And how did Bill Belichick let it get to this point?
Those are some questions that come to mind after a game that surely had New Englanders saying "whew" and wondering more about the rare Brady/O'Brien sideline spat.
Former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel used to say that what happens on the sideline stays there, because sometimes things can get heated in the course of a game. Mankins agrees with that line of thinking, to a point.
"It depends on what player and what coach, I guess," he said flatly.
Fair enough. If it was a rookie involved in such a fiery exchange with a coach, there could be repercussions.
But this is Brady.
That's also why the image resonated like it did, capturing the frustrations of a quarterback striving for perfection and a Patriots team that has yet to put it all together.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.