People sometimes tell me I look at the schedule too much. To which I say: No. I play Zombie Farm too much. I look at the schedule as much as is appropriate to aid my analysis of the NFL. The schedule is important because, while we obviously cannot accurately predict results of individual game, over the long haul playing weaker teams helps your chances and playing stronger teams hurts them. A month ago, for example, it wasn't hard to figure out that the Cowboys had a good chance to overtake the Giants by now, given the relative strengths of the teams they were going to play in November.
Back in August, when we were forecasting the season, a theory emerged that the records of the NFC East's teams would be helped this year by the fact that they were playing all of the teams in the NFC West. The West, you'll remember, failed to produce a winning record last season, as the Seahawks and Rams finished tied for the division lead at 7-9 and Seattle won on a tiebreaker. John Clayton was the first I saw to put forth this theory, based on the idea that the NFC South came up with three 10-win teams last season, in part because the West was on its schedule.
Well, playing the NFC West has helped the Cowboys. And the Redskins, actually. But it hasn't worked out exactly the way we imagined it would. No one expected the 49ers to be one of the best teams in the league, and the fact that they're 9-2 has kept the West from being the same kind of laughingstock it was last season. But the other three teams in the West are a combined 11-23, which means teams that get to play them should be taking advantage.
The NFC East has gone a combined 9-6 against Mike Sando's division with only one game -- Dallas' game this Sunday in Arizona -- left to play. Here's how it breaks down:
Cowboys (3-0): The only team in the division (and one of only two in the league) to beat the 49ers, the Cowboys can complete the NFC West sweep Sunday. And if they do that and the Giants lose to Green Bay, the Cowboys can clinch the division the following Sunday by beating the Giants.
Redskins (3-1): Three of Washington's four wins have come against the NFC West. And frankly, they played the Niners kind of tough, losing 19-11 in Week 9 during the John Beck era. Early season victories against Arizona and St. Louis helped them to their 3-1 start, and Sunday's victory in Seattle broke their six-game losing streak. I think the Redskins will miss playing the West.
Giants (2-2): The home loss to Seattle really stings as they find themselves one game out of first place. That and the loss in San Francisco hurt them in their tiebreaker efforts against the Cowboys, who beat both of those teams. They had to come back to beat Arizona, and they beat St. Louis in a sloppy Week 2 game at home.
Eagles (1-3): Surprised? Everyone's favorite underachievers won their opener in St. Louis. But they blew a 23-3 third-quarter lead to the Niners in Week 4 before everybody knew the Niners were legit and the Eagles weren't. Michael Vick and Jeremy Maclin haven't played since the Week 10 collapse and loss to the Cardinals. And Thursday night's loss in Seattle ensured that the Eagles can't have a winning record. There are a lot of places you can look to find missed Eagle opportunities, but those games against the West stand out as big ones. Sweep the West, and they're 7-5 right now.