NFC East Week 14: It's a Three Team Fight to the Finish
by Justin Henry (@cynicjrh)
NFC East Beat Writer/Drinking that Ovaltine so I can crack the code
The 3 division losses for the New York Giants just might come back to haunt them.
With a chance to create a two-game buffer in the NFC East on Monday night, the G-Men blew it all to Hell by losing to the Washington Redskins, 17-16.
As it stands now, New York leads the pack at 7-5, and clutches the fourth seed rather loosely. Washington and the Dallas Cowboys are just behind them at 6-6, and this is where things take a sharp turn.
New York's division record is 2-3, having lost to the Skins, Cowboys, and Philadelphia Eagles once each.
Washington is 3-1 within the East, beating each opponent once, and Dallas is 3-2, sweeping the Eagles, and beating New York on opening night.
Since New York split their series with Washington and Dallas, they either need to win the division outright with a mathematically superior record, or hope Washington and Dallas hit the wall and tumble.
Because as of now, those Giants, 1-3 since the start of November, are doing plenty of tumbling on their own.
1. Giants Must Handle Desperate Saints
It doesn't matter if they're 5-7 (after a disastrous 0-4 start, mind you): the Giants have to play a New Orleans Saints team coming off 10 days rest, and a quarterback who do everything he can to erase his 5-INT nightmare against the Falcons.
Drew Brees needs to right the Saints ship before it capsizes on the road to a possible, if improbable, Wild Card berth.
And he's doing it against a team he's 4-0 against. Drew Brees has beaten New York four times, all by 21 or more points.
Of course, the Saints haven't been as ferocious over their last 2 games, losing to San Francisco 31-21, and then getting dropped by Atlanta 23-13 (the five pick game).
This doesn't mean New York's in the clear: they blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead to Pittsburgh, got walloped by Cincinnati, redeemed themselves dominantly against Green Bay, and then couldn't stick the dagger in against Washington.
We're looking at a high-scoring game. The Saints allow a league-worst 5.07 yards per run attempt, and New York is just as inept at stopping the run (4.64 YPA allowed) as they are preventing third down conversions (39.29 percent, thirteenth worst in football).
Five-pick aberration aside, Brees still averages 306.2 yards per game (42 yards more than Eli Manning), and has thrown 31 touchdown passes. The Saints use a varied offense, just as Washington can be as unpredictable and diverse in distribution.
If New York couldn't stop Washington when it counted, how are they going to prevent Brees from notching win numero-cinco on them?
2. Battle with Baltimore Ultimate Litmus Test for Redskins
Simply put, a Giants loss and a Redskins win on Sunday gives Washington temporary control of first place in the NFC East.
Thing is, the Baltimore Ravens are less a speed bump and more a spike strip.
But is Baltimore really all that strong? On top of their recent average performances (barely beat Byron Leftwich, barely beat an inept Chargers team on a freak fourth and 29 play, lost to Charlie "Methuselah" Batch), they may have lost Terrell Suggs yet again.
And this defense has to find a way to stop Robert Griffin III, who has only thrown 4 interceptions all year.
The Ravens defense also gives up 125.8 YPG rushing, exceedingly worse than their 92.6 YPG average last season. This plays right into the hands of RG3 and Alfred Morris, the driving forces behind Washington's 5.29 YPA rushing.
If Washington exploits Baltimore's weakened defense with their usually effective ground game, the counterpoint would be to ask what the Ravens could do to Washington's D in return.
Truth be told, facing Joe Flacco might be just what the Redskins' troubled defense needs. Wildly inaccurate at times (Flacco's completed less than 50 percent of his passes 3 times this year), he's had to rely heavily on Ray Rice for balance.
Rice has a 4.4 YPA average, but London Fletcher and the Redskins defense hold opponents to a 4.08 YPA average.
If RG3 avoids mistakes (read: if Ed Reed doesn't make his usual acrobatic picks), then there's no reason why Washington can't win this one.
3. Dallas, Cincinnati Fighting for Postseason Hopes
The 6-6 Dallas Cowboys and 7-5 Cincinnati Bengals are scratching at the playoff door, each needing a strong finish to ensure their right to compete for the Lombardi Trophy.
Even though both teams are considered long shots to hoist that award come February, they're still going to make a run at its majesty. And their roads converge at a crucial pass on Sunday.
The Cowboys have won 3 of their last 4 games, including a sweep of the hapless Eagles, and needing a minor miracle to beat the Browns in overtime.
Cincinnati, after a 3-5 start in which they lost 4 straight at one point, bounced back to win 4 in a row, including a shellacking of the New York Giants. Granted, the other three wins were over the Larry, Curly, and Moe of the AFC West (Chiefs, Raiders, and Chargers), but they won games that they needed to win.
So who wins?
It's hard to argue against Andy Dalton, who's thrown 10 touchdowns and 2 interceptions over this winning streak, with four of those scores coming against the Giants. Of course, we did say he crushed some inferior competition in that stretch.
But what about Dallas? They're not exactly defensive wizards, in spite of DeMarcus Ware's awesome presence. They have only 5 interceptions, but that may be due to excellent coverage from Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr.
The Bengals, meanwhile, have 9 interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries, and a whopping 38 sacks. Tony Romo may be floating on a cloud after his second half dominance of the Eagles, but that mastery may be short-lived against a ferocious D.
4. Philly's Road Doesn't Get Easier Against On-the-Cusp Bucs
Eight losses in a row for the Philadelphia Eagles is their longest streak since losing the first 11 games of the 1968 season.
There were some bright spots in Sunday's loss to Dallas, namely Nick Foles looking comfortable, Bryce Brown looking beastly in spite of the costly fumble, and Brandon Graham showing some spark in place of the departed Jason Babin.
But 3-9 is 3-9, and another loss (or Giants win) officially ends the already-flatlining playoff hopes.
That death blow could come at the hands of a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that badly needs to wash out the taste of 2 costly losses.
Tampa's losses to Atlanta and Denver have them on the outside looking in right now, but a win over Philly will minimize the damage to a degree. Hey, everybody else beats Philly; why not the Bucs?
Tampa comes in with a litany of advantages; most notably their run stopping. It's the league best, allowing only 3.37 yards a carry, which could put a damper on Brown's recent showcasing. Foles isn't a scrambler like Michael Vick, so that's another edge for the Bucs.
On top of that, Josh Freeman has had a stellar season, throwing just 8 picks and taking 17 sacks. The Eagles haven't had an interception since Nnamdi Asomugha picked off Matthew Stafford on October 14, and the Eagles are transitioning out of the predictable Wide 9 in midseason, so don't look for Freeman's life to be in danger.
I may be an Eagles fan, but let's just say I'm happy to have Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson on my fantasy team this week.
5. Mini Power Rankings
1. New York Giants (7-5)
If the Giants were to win the division title, a win over the Saints is a must. After that, it's a pair of road games: the 11-1 Falcons and 9-3 Ravens, before getting Philadelphia at the end in Andy Reid's likely farewell. Time for the champs to snap out of it.
2. Washington Redskins (6-6)
Alfred Morris and Doug Martin (1106 yards each) are among just 42 players to have run for over 1100 yards as rookies. At their current pace, they'll end up in the top fifteen all time, hovering around legends like Barry Sanders, Earl Campbell, and Jerome Bettis.
3. Dallas Cowboys (6-6)
After 7 games, Tony Romo led the NFL with 13 interceptions. Since then, he's thrown just 2 over the past 5 games, and they were both to the Redskins on Thanksgiving. Both Drew Brees and Andrew Luck have since passed him, with 16 giveaways each.
4. Philadelphia Eagles (3-9)
The last time the Eagles lost 8+ in a row was 1968. They won 2 of their last 3 games to end up 2-12, and ended up costing themselves the first pick in the draft. In 1969, Buffalo chose OJ Simpson first, while the Eagles went third and got some guy named Leroy Keyes.
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