Matthew Gordon. 4th November, 2008 - 4:20 pm
This week in the NFC East, every team had something they wanted to say. New York wanted to be 7-1, which would put them in sole possession of the best record in the conference. Dallas wanted to show that they could beat the defending champs while also inching closer to Washington, who in turn wanted to gain attention by establishing their superiority over a marquee AFC team. Philadelphia, the underachiever in the division at a normally passable 4-3, wanted to demonstrate that they could stay in the increasingly dangerous playoff hunt.
This exciting, if frustrating, situation is a result of the NFL?s decision to only allow two wildcard playoff seeds in each conference. While the Cardinals can relax after their blowout win over the Rams, knowing that their 5-3 record puts them three games up on their closest divisional rival, there is no such luxury in the NFC East. This slaughterhouse of a division can be summed in three key games from Week Nine.
New York Giants 35, Dallas Cowboys 14
The Giants, despite being 6-1, could not possibly have felt comfortable with a half-game lead over the surprising, and impressive, Redskins. Worse yet, a loss to Dallas would only add another threat to their division lead. Had the Giants fallen to 6-2, they would have only been just one-half of a game up on the Cowboys.
Dallas faced a similar situation but from a different perspective. A win combined with a Washington loss would have put the Cowboys just a half-game out of the division lead while a loss combined with a Washington win would remove the Cowboys from the picture for the time being. Also, a record of 5-4 would not stack up against the NFC?s other wildcard contenders as comfortably.
Fortunately for the Cowboys, the Packers lost to the still undefeated Titans in overtime on Sunday. As a result, the Cowboys are still a half-game ahead of them. Unfortunately for Dallas, that?s all that went well for them this part weekend.
The Giants? offense was laudable, with Eli Manning throwing for three touchdowns, and Brandon Jacobs running for 117 yards on a mere seventeen carries for a 6.9 yard average. Behind the efforts of Manning?s arm and Jacobs? bulk, the Giants were able to possess the ball for over thirty-four minutes, including more than twelve of the first eighteen.
By establishing a balanced offensive attack early (the Giants led 14-0 after the first quarter), the Giants kept the Dallas defense guessing all game long. While the early play-calls were more pass-heavy, the second half consisted mainly of Jacobs pounding a tired Dallas defensive front.
Dallas had no such success. The rickety Brad Johnson, 40, continually felt the Giants? defensive pressure (5-for-11 with 71 yards and two interceptions), and journeyman Brooks Bollinger wasn?t much better (9-for-16 with 63 yards, a touchdown, and an interception).
Bollinger?s performance would have been satisfactory had Dallas run the ball well, but Marion Barber?s 54 yards on nineteen carries wasn?t convincing either. The most spectacular player while Dallas had the ball was Giants' defensive end Justin Tuck, who had a remarkable game with five tackles and 2.5 sacks ? he has 5.5 sacks in his last three games. While the Cowboys lick their wounds, the Giants are wondering if Tuck is exactly what the team needed to get over Michael Strahan?s retirement.
Dallas?s finest moment came in the second quarter, when German-born rookie cornerback Mike Jenkins recorded his first career interception and added a touchdown to go along with it. After the energizing play, the Cowboys appeared to have a chance.
However, the way in which New York responded was a reminder as to why they unseated arguably the three best teams in the league, all in a row, in last season?s playoffs. Manning used his poise and his line?s stellar protection to regain his composure, and the defense ensured that Dallas couldn?t add to their point total until the game was out of reach.
The Giants have to be thrilled coming out of this one. At 7-1, they?ve looked nothing short of dominant and have beaten the Redskins, Steelers, and Cowboys so far this season. They?ll be tested in the second half of the season, with games coming against the Eagles (twice, including a game in Philadelphia this week), Redskins, Cowboys, and Panthers, who look like the best NFC team not in the East. One of the downsides of playing in such a tough division is that there is an abundance of tough games, but whether the Giants win the division or not, at 7-1, they certainly have the head start they need.
The Cowboys are in a more difficult spot. Since replacing the injured Tony Romo as starting quarterback, Johnson has gone 41-for-78 (52.6%) with five interceptions and only two touchdowns. He?s also looked slow on the field, his already ordinary mobility reduced to a snail?s pace as he is showing his age. More pressingly, the Cowboys are now last in their division despite their winning record and have allowed more points than they?ve scored. If the Cowboys want to make the playoffs, they?ll have to hope Romo comes back at 100% very soon or shore up their pass-blocking for Johnson and/or Bollinger to pass better.
Philadelphia Eagles 26, Seattle Seahawks 7
Make no mistake: the Eagles had to win this game. Falling to 4-4, especially with a Cowboys' win, would have opened up a serious deficit that would have been difficult to overcome. It would also have pushed the Eagles below the Buccaneers, Falcons, Cardinals, and Bears, further hurting their playoff chances. Although the East is the NFC?s top division, almost the entire conference is revitalized, and each loss could be costly as winter inches closer. Losing to a team like the Seahawks (2-5) would have been inexcusable.
Losing is exactly what didn?t happen. Although the Seahawks? first play from scrimmage was worrisome to anyone rooting for the Eagles, the rest of the game was all Philadelphia. The Eagles scored two touchdowns on passes by Donovan McNabb in the second quarter en route to twenty-six unanswered points that allowed them to overcome their slow start. The offense was far from perfect, only converting on one of three red zone opportunities, and the Eagles had to settle for field goals in the second half. Even so, Philadelphia decided it would live by the pass. McNabb connected with ten different receivers for 349 yards, and Seattle?s secondary couldn?t fight back even though they knew what was coming.
Thanks to the Eagles? defense, those two first half touchdowns would have sufficed. Seneca Wallace?s stat line, aside from his opening touchdown pass, read 12-for-28 for 79 yards, and aside from a 28-yard up-the-gut charge from Maurice Morris, no Seattle running back did much. The Seahawks were stymied at every chance, punting eleven times and holding the ball for less than twenty-three minutes. Brian Dawkins had an especially good game, ruining two of Wallace?s best passes: the first with a crushing hit at midfield, and the second when he knocked a potential touchdown pass right out of the receiver?s hands. His energy and determination excited the whole defense, and the result was palpable.
The Eagles are definitely doing better than they were, having won their last three games after a disappointing two-game skid. They?re still two games behind the division-leading Giants, but they?ve leapfrogged the Cowboys. Aside from one big play and one penalty, Philadelphia played what was essentially a perfect game against the sputtering Seahawks. If they can take their gathered strength into Sunday?s home game against the Giants, they could come out looking like a contender ? or could find themselves in the same predicament the Cowboys are facing now.
Pittsburgh Steelers 23, Washington Redskins 6
The Redskins had the benefit of following the previous day?s games, but nothing could have made their Monday night game against the Steelers any less important. A win would keep the Redskins a half-game back of the Giants while a loss would sink them to only a half-game above the Eagles for the third place. Either way, the Redskins would remain in second, but 7-2 would put them in a different tier of the NFC (Giants, Panthers) than 6-3 (Buccaneers, Eagles, Bears, Cardinals).
It was apparent almost instantly that this game would be a defensive struggle. Andre Carter?s brilliant, not to mention turnover-causing, deflection in the first quarter readied the Redskins for their second-consecutive drive beginning in Steelers' territory, but both ended in field goals. A 43-yard penalty on cornerback Carlos Rogers in the second quarter gave the Steelers great field position as it more than doubled the Steelers? total yardage, but the Steelers could only come away with a field goal themselves.
The half?s other dazzling play was a blocked punt that Steelers' cornerback Ike Taylor recovered well into Washington territory. In true Steelers'/Redskins' fashion, the half?s only touchdown came on a quarterback sneak by Ben Roethlisberger.
Pittsburgh?s defense again proved why it is ranked first in the league. It?s not that Washington didn?t play well on offense; Pittsburgh simply never gave the Redskins a chance. The Steelers sacked Jason Campbell seven times, with star linebackers James Farrior and James Harrison both having stellar games. From Washington?s perspective, there really wasn?t much good that could be said.
The Redskins are now a game and a half back of the Giants, with a loss to New York already on their record, but have reason for hope. Games at Seattle and Cincinnati should be easy wins, and all three of Washington?s remaining divisional battles are at home. The offense is still proficient, with Campbell playing incredibly efficiently (he hadn?t thrown an interception in 379 passes until Monday night), and Clinton Portis rushing well, as usual. The Redskins? defense looked great against the Steelers, with the line?s varied blitz packages causing problems and the secondary unleashing some hard hits.
There?s no reason to panic, but the outcome of Week Eleven?s Dallas/Washington game will likely cause problems for one of the two teams involved.