NFC East Week 9: There Is No Second Place Anymore
By Justin Henry (@cynicjrh)
NFC East Beat Writer/Too strung out on mini-Snickers to create witty side-name
You like that title? It’s my way of saying, “I can’t hype up the Giants every single week; that would be boring! I need to keep it fresh while also relevant.”
But what’s relevant about the other three teams in the division? One doesn’t play as a team, one lives off self-inflicted controversy, and the other has to hope their dynamic rookie quarterback can bail out a pass defense more useless and stagnant than Frank Caliendo.
There’s a metaphor in there about the Giants playing a North team this week, while the Eagles, Cowboys, and Redskins are playing South teams: New York is clearly on the up and up, while the other three may as well brace for rock bottom.
For once, it’s the middle of the season, and Tom Coughlin has the safest job out of all the head coaches.
Until somebody else in the NFC East can prove themselves worthy, the Giants will remain the center of attention. At least a positive one, anyway.
As for Week 9, Eli Manning battles a fellow Class of 2004er, the Eagles find somebody with a defense as vulnerable as theirs, Dallas takes their shot at Goliath, and Washington’s new sensation looks to outshine Carolina’s (fading) new sensation.
1. Manning and Roethlisberger: 2 Great Paths Converge
5 of the last 7 Super Bowls have featured either Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger but, oddly enough, never against one another.
2 of the top picks of the 2004 NFL Draft are still at the top of their game in their respective ninth seasons. Manning has led his Giants to a 6-2 record, while Roethlisberger has navigated some early roughness to lead the Steelers to a 4-3 mark.
The series between the two is split 1-1. In their rookie season, the Steelers took a late lead on a Jerome Bettis run to win 33-30. In 2008, the Giants gradually overcame Roethlisberger’s poor 4-INT game to win 21-14.
So who wins the rubber match?
If the Giants are to win, they have a matchup that Eli Manning is able to easily exploit: field generalship.
Manning and New York have the league’s lowest sack/INT percentage. Manning’s thrown 8 INTs, but has only been sacked 6 times. In over 300 dropbacks, Manning has only had a play end disastrously 14 times, for a 4.95 percent failure rate.
The Steelers have 12 sacks as a team, but only 3 interceptions, giving Manning a clear advantage. I wonder if Pittsburgh misses Troy Polamalu any?
Interestingly, Pittsburgh hasn’t given up more than 265 passing yards through the air this season, whereas Manning has 3 300+ yard performances (including the 510 he dumped on Tampa Bay).
Roethlisberger will have a chance to match air strikes with Manning. New York gives up 7.22 passing yards per attempt, the seventh worst average in the league.
Big Ben’s only thrown 3 picks, and has some quality 300+ yard outings, but he should be wary: the Giants defense has 16 interceptions to make up for their occasional softness.
2. For Eagles, Beat Lousy Saints Defense, Or Else
They’re 3-4. The starting quarterback has voiced moderate support for his rookie backup, should he take over. Former player Ike Reese went on local TV and berated the team for their heartless, selfish efforts on Sunday. And that guillotine hangs over the coach’s weary head.
And there are still 9 games to be played.
First up for the free-falling Eagles: the NFL’s richest quarterback, and his cornucopia of offensive weapons that will pillage and plunder any non-commitment and hesitation shown by the Birds on Monday night.
Case in point, Drew Brees is on pace to put up 46 touchdowns and 5280 passing yards this season. What do you suppose he’s capable of doing to an Eagles team that let someone like Kevin Kolb throw strikes on them?
But if any Eagles fans are pinning their hopes on this game sparking a turnaround for the season, there’s a good chance they may get it.
There’s a reason the Saints are 2-5, and it’s not because Drew Brees lost his fastball. It’s because the defense is so godawful, so miserable, that even Saint Andrew can’t offer them salvation.
The Saints have not given up less than 24 points in any of their 7 games. The Eagles haven’t scored more than 24 points in any of their 7 games, so something’s bound to break.
And it must just be the “Aints” at home.
The Saints defense gives up 8.26 yards a pass attempt, the worst average in the league. They also have the third worst yards-per-run average in the league on defense, a 5.03 clip.
If Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, and DeSean Jackson aren’t vying for the fantasy stud title for Week 9, then Andy Reid may as well cut his own throat (metaphorically speaking) on Tuesday morning.
3. Turning 7-0 to 7-1 Would Get Dallas Back on Track
After the ugliness of 4 interceptions, going down 23-0 early, Dez Bryant’s bad day, and falling 2.5 games out of first place in the NFC East, the Dallas Cowboys can erase all of that with one swift stroke.
All they have to do is beat the NFL’s last unbeaten team.
Atlanta won’t be easy pickings, especially if they can cut through Dallas defensively like they did Philadelphia this past Sunday. Matt Ryan’s completing almost 69 percent of his passes, and he has a deadly trio to throw to: Roddy White (591 receiving yards, 4 touchdowns), Julio Jones (499 yards, 5 TDs), and the ageless Tony Gonzalez (459 yards, 4 TDs).
What does Dallas have to counter that kind of attack?
Sadly for the Cowboys, their pass defense numbers have generally worsened since Barry Church went on IR. With him involved, they only allowed 137 passing yards a game. Without him, the number’s increased to 225.8 YPG.
Ryan’s a threat to those totals, averaging 288.3 YPG passing. With that receiving trinity, you can see why. Even Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr will have their hands full shutting White and Jones down all game.
On defense, however, Atlanta gives up 5.05 YPA, the second worst average in the league. I’m sure Dallas is champing at the bit for DeMarco Murray to return from injury in time for Sunday night’s game, but even Felix Jones could put a dent in that weakened reserve.
If Tony Romo can avoid mistakes, he will find Atlanta’s pass defense fairly average. The likes of Carson Palmer and Matt Cassel were able to throw fairly well on them, but the Falcons can indeed make up for lost ground with turnovers; 10 INTs and 7 fumble recoveries to be exact.
4. RG3 vs. Newton Showcases Bright Future, but Grim Present
Robert Griffin III doesn’t seem to be the type to buy into his own hype and let his well-cultivated media image get the best of him. He’s far too disciplined, and seemingly far too humble, to be a victim of the ego trap.
In other words, Cam Newton has someone to envy.
Newton’s second act in Carolina has been nothing short of uninspiring. Whether it’s through his lackluster QB rating (75.3), his needless posturing when he’s losing, or his sulking when things look bleak, Newton demonstrates none of the maturity or guile that RG3, who doesn’t exactly play on a winner himself, shows.
Griffin and Newton were both so used to winning in college, but the last 2 Heisman winners find themselves saddled with incompetent professional clubs, each needing a win to sustain some faint hope for what will ultimately be termed a “growing pain” season.
So who wins?
The Panthers’ run defense is middle-of-the-road, allowing 4.09 yards a carry. You need to be better than average to stop Griffin and Alfred Morris, the architects of a running attack gaining 5.32 yards per attempt.
Then again, Newton’s proven he can throw on even good defenses, like Chicago (314 yards) and Tampa Bay (303). Washington’s got a pretty crappy defense, giving up 314.3 YPG through the air, and Newton, barring his pick-per-game average, can exploit that.
Really, it comes down to Newton’s increasingly-obvious lack of immortality against the Redskins pass defense’s ineptitude. Whoever can win that battle, that’s likely who walks out Sunday victorious.
Shame two exciting Heisman winners with versatile weapons among their arsenals have to meet in circumstances lacking importance.
5. Mini Power Rankings
1. New York
Since realignment in 2002, the Giants have won the division 3 times. In each of those cases, their title wasn’t secured until after December 1. At the current rate, New York can’t win the East earlier than December 9, but given the descent of their 3 rivals, that ETA gets earlier.
The last time Michael Vick played ex-division rival New Orleans, it was November 27, 2006, and the year when Drew Brees began to provide optimism to the Bayou faithful. The Saints won 31-13 in Atlanta, and a frustrated Vick gained infamy for flipping off heckling fans after the game.
I’m not saying Dallas has no shot against the Falcons, but I’m saying that the last time the Cowboys beat a team with a winning record was November 13 of last year. It was on that day that 5-3 (and falling) Buffalo was upended 27-11. Of course, 7-0 is a far cry from 5-3.
Alfred Morris is on pace for 1434 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns in this, his rookie season. Only one other Redskins rookie has topped the grand mark: Reggie Brooks in 1993, who had 1063 yards and 3 scores. Brooks was out of the league after 1996, so hopefully Morris has better luck.
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