For years, we could turn up our collective nose at the smell coming from the NFC West and AFC West, but now the division that Landry and Gibbs built is in similar shape. How else do you describe a division that has three teams tied for the lead at 2-2, and the Cowboys sitting "pretty" at 1-2. (Yes, I know the Skins are 2-0 in the division, but just work with me folks.) Against my best judgment, I've now seen all four teams in person.
I was on the verge of joining the Michael Vick redemption tour until he was sandwiched at the goal line by two Redskins defenders in Sunday's game. Now it looks like it would take a miracle for this man to stay in one piece for an extended amount of time. He plays behind the most overrated left tackle in the league in Jason Peters and his most brilliant skill (scrambling from large men) exposes him to injury on an inordinate number of plays. (Bill Parcells loved the word "inordinate" with all his heart, so I try to keep it in play.)
Michael Vick's hot start was derailed Sunday after the starting quarterback injured his ribs.
Even the most hallowed of NFL traditions, the ESPN.com Power Rankings featuring “The Professor” himself, has no clue what to make of this division. The Dallas Cowboys surged to No. 14 to lead the division this week based on the fact that no one had to watch them play last Sunday because of the bye.
The Cowboys have reemerged as the division favorite based on their talented roster, a nice road win in Houston and our distrust of the other three teams. I applied to drive the Mike Shanahan bandwagon during training camp, but his extremely white teeth and disregard for certain positions (such as running back and receiver) have caused me to go in a different direction. It should be pointed out (by me of course) that only one of our 357 contributors at ESPN.com picked the Skins to beat the Eagles, but I think Shanahan's about to get caught in the teeth of a snarling schedule that includes the Packers, Colts and Bears in successive weeks. Even with Slingin' Don and the bruising Ryan Torain, this offense isn't built to score points on a consistent basis.
At least two teams in this division are on a crash course for 8-8, which is good enough to win an NFC West crown, but not quite strong enough to win the weakened "Beast." I picked the New York Giants to make the Super Bowl, but that's before I watched them embarrass the Mara and Tisch families against the Tennessee Titans two weeks ago. The Giants showed an utter lack of discipline in that game, and the bounce-back win against Jay Cutler and the Bears didn't totally restore my faith in Tom Coughlin's team.
The Bears were the most fraudulent 3-0 team since the Broncos of 2009. Cutler is the ultimate coach-killer because he holds the ball too long, doesn't secure it and throws too many interceptions. Other than that, I love his game.
I'd be shocked if the Bears are still in the playoff conversation in December -- especially because the Vikings are fulfilling Favre's bucket list. If they move one home game to Hattiesburg, he'll be set.
This isn't the first time the NFC East has gone through a lull. The Redskins, Cowboys and Giants all faded in December 2008 while the Eagles made an improbable run to the NFC title game, which forced fans to endure Donovan McNabb for another season. And the Redskins and Giants were both dreadful in 2009. I guess you could say there has been a trend over the past couple of seasons of the division's reputation exceeding its production.
But this is the first time I can remember looking at all four teams and seeing only mediocrity. The Eagles have one of the most dangerous receiving corps in the league, but it doesn't really matter when teams play Tampa 2 coverage and force quarterbacks to throw everything underneath. Until DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin show they can get open for Kevin Kolb or Vick downfield on a consistent basis, that's what they'll face. Coach Andy Reid made a mistake against the Redskins by taking only four receivers to the game. When Riley Cooper suffered a concussion, Jackson, Maclin and Jason Avant played too many snaps. They were so tired on the final possession that they could barely get a release at the line of scrimmage.
I'll reluctantly admit that Dallas has the best chance to break away from the pack. Tony Romo was extremely efficient in the win over the Texans and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett found the "running plays" section on his laminated play-calling chart. The Eagles and Giants didn't take advantage of the Cowboys' slow start, which will haunt them down the stretch. I didn’t expect the Redskins to do anything this season, so they’ve already exceeded my expectations.
The Cowboys play host to a wildly inconsistent Titans team Sunday and then travel to Minneapolis for a pivotal game. They return home after that to play the Giants and Jaguars in successive weeks. If the Cowboys can go 3-1 in that stretch, which seems reasonable, they'll be in control of the division heading into November.
Linebacker Keith Brooking, who normally has a good gauge of the Cowboys' locker room, said he’s not worried about the other teams in the division at this point.
“All that matters, all that truly matters -- I mean this with all my heart – is what we do, what we take care of,” Brooking said earlier this week. “We have five games left to play in our division right now. That’s all that matters. If we take care of our business and we prepare the way we’re supposed to prepare, everything will take care of itself. It’s not about what other teams do.”
But with all due respect to the founding fathers of this proud division, the best weapon these teams have is the bye week. Just ask Wade Phillips.