Thursday, November 3, 2011
Why the Eagles will still win the NFC East
By Dan Graziano
The mood in the Philadelphia Eagles' locker room late Sunday night was lively. NFL players often feel more chatty after a win, but this was a big win, and the win itself wasn't the only thing about which the Eagles felt like chatting. Sunday was the game in which they really felt it all came together -- that all of the new schemes and techniques and terminology the defense and the offensive line have been working to learn since the start of training camp finally began to come easily to them. It was the first time they felt like they'd put all of the fruits of their work on display for the world to see. They were proud, and they were extremely excited to get back out there and do it again.
Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha says the 3-4 Eagles are optimistic about the remainder of the season.
"We were all learning. All of us," cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said. "And it's a tall task to do it here, where so much is expected. But we're all still growing and we're all encouraged."
A 1-4 start is a hell of a thing from which to try and recover and reach the playoffs. And at a still-pedestrian 3-4, the Eagles are a long way from recovered. One slip -- say, Monday night against the Chicago Bears, for example -- could set them right back down the wrong path. But when I look at the way the rest of the year lays out for the Eagles and their division rivals, I can't help but think that their worst is behind them and that they will, as so many of us predicted before the start of the season, win the NFC East.
The biggest obstacle in their path is, of course, the New York Giants, who are 5-2 and beat them head-to-head earlier this year. That effectively gives the Giants a three-game lead on the Eagles, and that makes the Giants the statistical-probability favorites to win it. But the Giants aren't without issues, and some of their issues are fundamentally alarming. They rank 30th in the league in rush yards as an offense, 28th in the league in run defense. They've built a 5-2 record on heart, guts, a pass rush and late-game Eli Manning comebacks. They have one of the league's best records in spite of scoring only 10 more points so far than they've allowed.
That heart and those guts and that pass rush and that Manning guy could be enough to get the Giants through a season successfully. But this isn't a normal season, and the Giants' schedule is about to turn heinous. They could lose every one of their next six games -- at New England, at San Francisco, home to the Eagles, at New Orleans, home to the Packers and at Dallas -- and be 5-8 heading into their game Dec. 18 against the Redskins. Even if they went 2-4 over their next six games, they'd be 7-6 and would need to win their final three games to get to 10 wins. That might get them the division title, especially if they beat the Eagles at home in three weeks, but it's a lot to ask for a team that can't run, can't stop the run and scores only 1.4 points per game more than its opponents.
The Cowboys lurk also, at 3-4, and a week ago it looked as though they would be the team to emerge from the middle of the division pack and win it. Dallas could legitimately win each of its next five games -- home to Seattle, home to Buffalo, at Washington, home to Miami and at Arizona -- and be 8-4 going into their home game Dec. 11 against the Giants. Even if they lose the Buffalo game, there's no excuse for them not to be 7-5 going into that Giants game, and then if they split their final four they get to 10-6 or 9-7 and are right in the thick of it. You could still get the Cowboys to 11 wins if you figure they beat Buffalo and Tampa Bay, split with the Giants and win the rematch with the Eagles in their home stadium. The problem with the Cowboys is this Sean Lee injury. If he's out for a significant period of time, the defense won't work as well as it has so far and they'll lose some games they should win. Couple that with the growing pains Jason Garrett is having as a head coach and, for some reason, a playcaller, and I think Dallas falls just short.
The Redskins are also 3-4, but injuries are shredding them and unless they can find a way to turn things around on offense, they're going to struggle. They have two games left that should be easy wins -- at Miami and home to the Vikings. But to reach my preseason prediction of 7-9 they'll need to find two more -- maybe at Seattle and then steal a home win against the Cowboys, Jets or Patriots? If they get Trent Williams back soon, solidify things on the line, lock things down on defense and get up emotionally for the division games, they could still be a factor. But they're short on quality personnel right now, and that's going to hurt them.
So it looks like a three-way horse race with Big Blue way out in front, America's Team stalking and Midnight Green trying to recover from a bad trip. We're just short of the halfway mark, but I have reason to believe Big Blue will fade and Midnight Green still has enough in the tank to nip him at the wire. Of the contenders in the NFC East, the Eagles have the most reason to believe their most excellent football lies ahead of them. And they showed Sunday night that, if they don't turn the ball over and play the way they've known all along that they can play, they're almost impossible to stop.