What did we learn about the Beast on Sunday?


Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
LANDOVER, Md. -- Like it or not, the New York Giants don't appear to have any serious challengers in the NFC. For all practical purposes, the race for the NFC East crown ended when the Giants (9-1) dismantled the Baltimore Ravens, 30-10, and the Cowboys (6-4) pulled off a 14-10 win over the Redskins (6-4).

Last year may have been a fairytale, but this season the Giants aren't sneaking up on anyone. They stacked up wins against the dregs of the league in the first half, and now they're plowing through the competitive portion of their schedule.

Meanwhile, the race for the NFC's two wild-card spots took an unpredictable turn Sunday. That is, unless you called that Eagles-Bengals tie.

At this very moment, the Eagles are going over the overtime rules with their 10-year veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb.
At 5-4-1 (that's so NHL), the Eagles have taken their rightful place in the NFC Beast cellar. McNabb has posted back-to-back howlers against the Giants and Bengals. He threw three interceptions against one of the worst defenses in the league in Sunday's 13-13 tie. So for now, let's eliminate the Eagles from contention.

At FedEx Field, the Cowboys were busy pumping life into their fading playoff hopes. Quarterback Tony Romo was supposed to give them a lift -- and he did -- but it was running back Marion Barber who did the heavy lifting. He was so brilliant in the fourth quarter that the club's P.R. staff forced the painfully shy player into fielding a couple of questions following the game.

On the Cowboys' game-sealing drive, he touched the ball on 11 consecutive plays. He capped off the punishing stretch with a 3-yard run around the right side on fourth-and-1. Barber put the team on his back in the second half, and in doing so, lit a fire under the club's talented offensive line.

Before the game, owner Jerry Jones admitted that the season hinged on a victory over the Redskins. And for once, the Cowboys seemed to grasp the magnitude of the moment. There were no game balls for Wade Phillips. No fiery speeches from Jones. Just a group of relieved players who actually rose to the occasion.

For the Redskins, it was their second consecutive loss at home. They'd stacked up road wins against the Cowboys and Eagles, but Sunday's loss was a major setback. The offense sputtered at crucial times against the Cowboys. Quarterback Jason Campbell's interception early in the third quarter was completely telegraphed. And the fact that he continues to take sacks at the worst possible moments has to be driving coach Jim Zorn nuts.

The Redskins' offense has looked very efficient at times this season, but they've regressed over the last couple of games. Over the long haul, the Redskins have the most-favorable schedule remaining in the NFC East. But the Cowboys have back-to-back games against the 49ers and Seahawks coming up.

After the Seahawks games on Thanksgiving Day, the Cowboys will have 10 days to prepare for a game in Pittsburgh. And there's a good chance they head into that game with an 8-4 record. The Cowboys will host the Giants and they'll finish the season on the road in Philadelphia. From what I can tell, the first team to 10 will secure a wild-card berth. But if the Cowboys and Redskins both go 4-2, they'll finish with identical 10-6 records. Each team is 2-2 against NFC East opponents right now. See how murky this gets?

The Giants are clearly the best team in the NFC right now. Everyone else in the NFC East has conceded that point. The Cowboys' stated goal is to become the Giants of 2007. Of course, the problem is that the Giants of 2008 appear to be a better overall team than their Super Bowl team.

When I figure all this out, I promise to get back to you.