NFC East: Matt Ryan

The New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons, a pair of 2013 disappointments with identical 2-2 records and hopes of factoring into their respective division races, play at MetLife Stadium at 1 p.m. ET Sunday. ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano and ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure present their preview:

Graziano: Vaughn, I'm going to get to the Falcons' defense in a minute, because I have a ton of questions about that. But I'd be remiss if I didn't start by asking: What was tight end Levine Toilolo doing at right tackle in the loss to Minnesota, and are they going to have five real offensive linemen to suit up for them Sunday?

McClure: The Falcons really had no other choice at the end of the Vikings game after three starting offensive linemen -- center Joe Hawley (ACL), left guard Justin Blalock (back) and right tackle Lamar Holmes (foot) -- exited with injuries. Two other linemen were inactive for the game. So, yes, depth is an issue with Hawley and Holmes on season-ending injured reserve. The good thing for the Falcons is that linemen Gabe Carimi, Peter Konz, Ryan Schraeder and rookie James Stone are capable of playing multiple positions. The Falcons also promoted guard Harland Gunn from the practice squad and signed tackle Cameron Bradfield. Konz's performance will be key as he steps in for Hawley, and the Falcons better hope Blalock's back responds well in preparation for Sunday.

I watched the Giants-Redskins game and was impressed with what the Giants were able to accomplish offensively. Can they sustain such momentum, particularly coming off a couple of extra days of rest?

Graziano: They're hoping so. What the Giants are saying is that the way the offense has looked the past two games represents progress in the new system, and that's why they think it has a chance to be more "real" than what they showed in the first two games. We will see.

What has surprised me is the way the offensive line has held up in pass protection the past two games after looking like a liability in preseason and once the regular season started. If that continues, then Eli Manning -- who's releasing the ball about a half-second faster on average this season due to the shorter drops and quicker reads on which the new system is built -- should be in a strong position to succeed. But since they're not a quick-strike downfield offense right now, I wonder what happens if they fall behind in a game and have to get into a shootout with a high-powered offensive team. The Texans aren't that, and Washington didn't put up a fight. Atlanta has all the weapons, but is the passing game where it needs to be right now in order to take advantage of the talent?

McClure: I think that goes back to our first question, Dan. If quarterback Matt Ryan gets adequate protection, he's one of the elite quarterbacks in this league. But it's hard to get that type of protection when you're using tight ends at right tackle.

Ryan actually has done a marvelous job extending plays with his feet, partly due to increased protection up front in the form of veteran right guard Jon Asamoah and rookie left tackle Jake Matthews. If Ryan can overcome whatever changes are made up front for the Giants, then maybe he’ll get the offense back in high gear. That’s something the Falcons haven’t been able to do on the road, where they’ve dropped four straight. Ryan needs time to find a playmaker such as Julio Jones down the field.

I saw a few unheralded Giants make some plays in the last game. It seems like the Falcons' defense lets no-name players have career games every time out. What do you expect out of some of the Giants' role players?

Graziano: My guess is that you're referring to tight end Larry Donnell, who caught three touchdown passes in Washington. The Giants always believe they can find productivity at tight end on the cheap, so they didn't flinch when everybody was getting on them all offseason for not having one. Donnell runs good routes and can jump high to catch the ball (he's a 6-foot-6 former basketball player), and it's to the coaching staff's credit that that's exactly what they're using him to do. He's not much of a blocker and can't do anything after the catch, but the thing he's good at, he's very good at, and as long as other teams aren't defending it well, they Gians will keep going back to it.

Fundamentally, this offense is built to operate through the run game, and it will continue to do so with an emphasis on Rashad Jennings as the lead back. He and rookie Andre Williams split carries Thursday because Jennings had 34 carries in the game just four days earlier, and they got a big lead and could ease off the gas. But it'll be Jennings to run the ball and set up play-action, and then it'll be Donnell, Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle or whoever's open when they throw it. Short stuff, timing-based stuff, and stuff designed to minimize mistakes and put the unimpressive names they have in the best possible positions to succeed.

Which brings me to this: The Falcons' defense seems to be quite good at putting opposing offenses in position to succeed. Any hope of things getting any better, or is this a defense that's going to struggle all year?

McClure: It's going to be a struggle unless they magically come up with some way to trade for J.J. Watt. There are not enough playmakers on the Falcons' defense, with no elite pass-rusher and no ball hawking defensive back who will create a lot of turnovers. Throw in their defensive leader, strong safety William Moore, being placed on short-term IR with a shoulder injury, and you have the recipe for disaster.

The defense actually looked respectable against Tampa Bay, but that was because the offense got off to a hot start and the Buccaneers were in desperation mode early. There is no excuse for giving up 558 yards to a Vikings team playing without Adrian Peterson and with a rookie quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater. The Falcons continue to struggle with their third-down defense and continue to give up explosive plays. Manning and Jennings, among others, should be itching to put up big numbers against this pathetic defense that gives up a league-worst 8.37 yards passing per play and yields 429.8 yards per game, which is second-to-last in the league.

Defensively, how do you expect the Giants to contend with Jones, Devin Hester and Antone Smith?

Graziano: The Giants made a change at free safety last week, benching Stevie Brown for Quintin Demps, who was signed as a kick returner and has good speed on the back end. That change was made because Brown was struggling, but also with an eye toward the speed matchups they had coming up on the schedule -- DeSean Jackson last week, the guys you mention this week, and Jeremy Maclin and the Eagles next week.

Demps will play in the post while Antrel Rolle can move up in the box, and they'll likely plaster cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on Jones and use Prince Amukamara on whoever the second receiver is. Trumaine McBride, who was a starter last season, has replaced the injured Walter Thurmond as the nickel. McBride is a high-effort guy, but you can win physical matchups against him. The Giants rely on Rodgers-Cromartie's and Amukamara's ability to hold up in man coverage, but they believe they have enough speed with Demps and weakside linebacker Jacquian Williams to help supplement that as needed. If Rodgers-Cromartie is limited this week with his thigh injury, that could affect things. But as of now, that's the plan.

Good stuff, Vaughn, thanks. Travel safe, and I'll see you Sunday.

PHILADELPHIA -- It’s easy to understand why Eagles coach Chip Kelly would be impressed with Bill Musgrave.

A month ago, Musgrave was calling the plays for the Minnesota Vikings when Matt Cassel threw for 382 yards and two touchdowns in a 48-30 blowout. Without Adrian Peterson or backup Toby Gerhart, Musgrave helped deal Kelly and the Eagles their only loss in the second half of the regular season.

[+] EnlargeBill Musgrave
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsBill Musgrave's work as the Vikings' playcaller likely impressed Eagles coach Chip Kelly during their December meeting.
Kelly hired Musgrave, the former Minnesota offensive coordinator, as his new quarterbacks coach on Tuesday. Musgrave, 46, replaces Bill Lazor, who left the Eagles after one season to become offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins. The hiring was first reported by Alex Marvez of Fox Sports.

Musgrave’s history is intriguing for three very different reasons.

Most important, he has deep roots in the West Coast offense, as does Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. Musgrave spent most of his playing career as a backup in San Francisco, where he played under Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak. He followed Shanahan to Denver, where he backed up John Elway for a couple of years.

Kelly, of course, is not a West Coast offense guy. He dubbed the Eagles' offense the “See Coast” offense, because he and his staff borrow from things they see and like. Kelly stressed that the Eagles' offense is the product of his entire staff, not an attempt to replicate what he ran at Oregon.

After the season, rookie quarterback Matt Barkley said the Eagles’ running game was very similar to the one Barkley saw while playing for USC against Oregon. But the passing game had West Coast influences thanks to the presence of Shurmur and Lazor.

In that sense, then, Musgrave represents continuity.

Musgrave also has a history with Michael Vick, having served as quarterbacks coach for Vick’s final season in Atlanta. It isn’t clear whether that’s good or bad for Vick’s potential return to the Eagles, since the Falcons went 7-9 that year and took Matt Ryan in the first round of the 2008 draft. Musgrave worked with Ryan for two seasons.

The other interesting thing about Musgrave’s coaching career is the odd way that it began. He was hired immediately after his playing career as the quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders, serving on the staff of a first-year head coach named Jon Gruden.

That job lasted for only the 1997 season.

Meanwhile, the Eagles were in utter disarray after losing Gruden, their offensive coordinator, to the Raiders. Head coach Ray Rhodes hired Dana Bible to replace Gruden, but by the end of training camp was already regretting the decision. Rhodes hired Musgrave as an offensive consultant.

By mid-October, Musgrave had unofficially taken over offensive coordinator duties. He was just 30 years old, a year younger than starting quarterback Rodney Peete. Bible remained on the staff. So did the quarterbacks coach, a young up-and-comer named Sean Payton.

The whole staff was fired at the end of that 3-13 season. Andy Reid and his crew came in as replacements.

Musgrave rebounded, coaching quarterbacks in Carolina, Jacksonville, Washington and Atlanta before becoming the Vikings' offensive coordinator in 2011. He returns to Philadelphia under much better circumstances this time around. Musgrave will work with Nick Foles, Barkley and possibly an as-yet unknown third quarterback.

One other change: Eric Chinander, the Eagles’ assistant defensive line coach, returned to the University of Oregon as a linebackers coach. Chinander followed Kelly to Philadelphia last year. Jerry Azzinaro remains the defensive line coach.

Record is same, experience is not

December, 12, 2013
ASHBURN, Va. -- They have the same record, but are going through a far different experience. Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan blamed the noise surrounding his team on their record and that’s partly true. But there’s little noise out of Atlanta, which also entered the season with Super Bowl hopes and instead are seven games under .500, just like the Redskins.

Why is that? Here’s a good place to start: The Falcons were 56-24 under coach Mike Smith entering the season. (They were 11-21 the previous two seasons and coming off the Mike Vick saga, so this was not an easy turnaround.) The Redskins were 21-27 under Shanahan.

Any coach such as Smith can withstand a bad season after so many good ones. Any coach in Shanahan’s position will be scrutinized, especially when in the last year of a contract. (Smith signed a three-year extension in 2011; general manager Thomas Dimitroff said earlier this season that Smith was going nowhere.) When you're in Shanahan's situation, leaks result.

[+] EnlargeMike Smith
AP Photo/Reinhold MatayFalcons coach Mike Smith's success in the recent past affords him leeway that Mike Shanahan is not getting right now.
Smith said he’s handled their 3-10 season by staying positive.

“I’m a very positive person and I think that you have to be transparent with your team in terms of when things are going well and when things are not going well,” he said. “We have collectively contributed to the success that we’ve had and we’ve collectively contributed to the season that we’re having this year. We’re all responsible for it and we’re all accountable for it. I think when you have that type of communication between the different parts of the organization and everybody takes accountability for it, it makes it a lot easier.”

"Certainly, it’s a tough time," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "I think Coach Smith has done a great job of handling the different situations.”

A strong locker room helps, too. The Redskins say they have it and, being in there every day, I agree. I do think the next three weeks will be a struggle with the circus atmosphere that now dominates. The outside stories about Shanahan’s future or past and examining every relationship involving Griffin have taken a toll.

Atlanta doesn’t have to endure any of that.

“You want to point fingers, that’s just the way it is, but it does you no good,” Ryan said. “I think guys have realized that -- that blaming other people and trying to throw guys under the bus, it’s not going to help us. Certainly that’s one of the things, when you look at a tough season, that’s one of the things that is a positive.”

Here, there’s talk about the nature of owner Dan Snyder’s relationship with Robert Griffin III. We don’t know how Arthur Blank gets along with Ryan. (We do know he was close to Vick.)

Smith on Blank:

“Well, Arthur is a very good leader. He’s got a lot of experience not only in football, but in business as well. He knows how to handle things when times are great and knows how to deal with things when times are bad. I think it starts at the top with him. ... Again, I think collaboration is very important, and communication, so that you have a collaborative atmosphere where you can have discussions and make decisions to try to get things first. That’s what we’re trying to do at this point in time and we will get it done.”

Meanwhile, the Redskins will enter the offseason with plenty of questions that the Falcons just don't have to answer.

Tony Romo vs. the undefeated

October, 4, 2013
IRVING, Texas -- The last time Tony Romo went against an undefeated Peyton Manning-led team he had only three starts under his belt as the Dallas Cowboys' quarterback.

On Thursday Romo was asked what he remembered about the week leading into the game against the 9-0 Indianapolis Colts.

“Well, Bill (said to) me on Monday, ‘I’m going to turn this game over to you,’ and I said, ‘Let’s go,’” Romo said. “… And we ran it 36 times.”

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/Ben MargotTony Romo has some experience leading the Cowboys to victory against unbeaten teams.
Bill would be Bill Parcells, and the Cowboys' coach was not ready to hand the game over to Romo, but the quarterback did complete 19 of 23 passes for 226 yards. He did not throw a touchdown pass, but he did complete 10 of his final 11 passes for 130 yards to deliver a 21-14 win at Texas Stadium, ending the Colts’ perfect season.

Manning brings an undefeated Denver Broncos to AT&T Stadium. Romo will be making the 98th regular-season start of his career.

This will be Romo’s fifth start against teams that have started at least 4-0. He beat Manning’s Colts, lost to Tom Brady’s 5-0 New England Patriots in 2007, beat Drew Brees' 13-0 New Orleans Saints in 2009, and lost to Matt Ryan's 7-0 Atlanta Falcons last year.

“I think what you do is, you do what needs to be done throughout most of the football game, and as the game gets to a certain point in the game and the score dictates what you need to do to help your football team win,” Romo said. “Before then, I just think as a quarterback you need to do what gives you the best chance to be successful on that play. If that’s a deep ball, if that’s a dump off, that’s a handoff, whatever it might entail that gives your team the best chance to move the ball, that’s what you need to do."

The Cowboys beat the Colts by holding the ball for 33 minutes, 42 seconds, and running the ball 36 times for 117 yards. On the second play of the game the defense recovered a fumble. On the fifth play, DeMarcus Ware sacked Manning. On the 11th play Jay Ratliff had a sack-fumble. Roy Williams had an interception near the Dallas goal line, and Kevin Burnett returned an interception for a touchdown.

Against the Patriots, the Cowboys were matching Brady, and the defense scored a touchdown on a Jason Hatcher fumble recovery. Trailing 31-24 early in the fourth quarter a fourth-and-1 conversion was overturned by a holding penalty, forcing a punt. Five plays later, Brady threw a 69-yard touchdown pass and the Patriots went on to win 48-27.

Against the Saints the Cowboys scored touchdowns on their first two drives and took a 24-3 lead on the opening drive of the second half. Mike Jenkins intercepted Brees near the Cowboys’ goal line, and Ware, who was not supposed to play because of a neck injury, had two sacks of Brees and three hurries.

The Cowboys won 24-17, rushing 36 times for 145 yards and converting on eight of 15 third-down opportunities.

Last year at Atlanta, the Cowboys sputtered on their first two possessions inside the red zone and had to settle for two Dan Bailey field goals for a 6-0 lead. The Falcons took a 16-6 lead late in the fourth quarter, but Romo connected with Kevin Ogletree for a touchdown with 5:21 to play to cut the deficit to three points. The defense, however, could not get off the field on the ensuing drive (three third-down conversions) and Atlanta ate up all but 17 seconds on the clock.

“Teams get to 9, 10-0, 12-0 or whatever it might be, and they’ve obviously done a lot of good things right and Denver hasn’t really played in a football game yet,” Romo said. “It’s a testament to their players. They’re playing at a very high level. They deserve everything they’ve gotten. To beat a football team like this you have to play at a very high level, and you have to do a lot of things right. Saying that, there’s a certain recipe and certain way to go about the process, and we’re trying to do that.”
Coming in at No. 13 on Ron Jaworski's annual ranking of NFL quarterbacks is the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III. Here's what Jaws had to say about RG III on SportsCenter on Wednesday morning:
“It’s rare when I evaluate rookies so highly. I believe in performance over time. But in the case of Robert Griffin III, his individual play and his overall impact was so extraordinary, that he comes in at No. 13 on my quarterback big board.

“It began the opening game of the season against the Saints. You know what I loved about this play? RG III’s total awareness of what happened. Listen to him on the sideline. Let’s break the play down and explain what RG III was talking about. Here’s the play fake, and here’s the blitzing safety. There’s Niles Paul, the hot receiver. And there’s the linebacker RG III was talking about covering Paul. At that point, the defense won. That’s a remarkable reaction for a quarterback on his 12th play.

“RG III and the Redskins played offense differently than we had seen in the NFL. Their foundation was the option. RG III led all quarterbacks in rushing with over 800 yards. Often, it was the option. Other times, it was just pure speed. The key of course was the effectiveness of the passing game off the option. Look at the impact of the read-option on the safety. His eyes are focused in the backfield, with no awareness of Aldrick Robinson on the deep post right in front of him.

“As spectacular as RG III can be with his legs, it’s his passing ability that gives him a chance to be a very special player. That’s why I have him ranked 13th after just one season. The question is how will the Redskins handle RG III after his major knee injury? Will we see as much read-option? Or will Mike and Kyle Shanahan incorporate more NFL drop-back passing concepts? It will be a delicate balancing act, and I’m very intrigued to see it.”

So, what's interesting to me about this is that the reaction of Redskins fans to the ranking was that it was too low, while Jaws seems to be defending how high a ranking it was for a quarterback coming off his first year. The thing is, through process of elimination, we can determine that Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick all rank in the top 12, ahead of Griffin. (Here's the list through 15, and Jay Cutler was No. 14.) So while it might be rare for Jaws to rank a guy this high after his first year, he appears to have ranked three other guys in the same situation even higher. (And yes, I understand that Kaepernick was not a rookie last season, but he wasn't a starter in 2011, or even in the first part of 2012 for that matter.)

Personally, I'd definitely rank Griffin ahead of Kaepernick and Houston's Matt Schaub, who's apparently also in that top 12 (along with, in some order, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Joe Flacco). And I think you could certainly argue him over Luck or Wilson, though it's no slam-dunk. But then again, you could argue Tony Romo over any of those guys, and Jaws has him 15th. This is one man's opinion, folks, and not only is it one to which he has the right, it's one at which he's arrived after extensive film study and consideration of all of these guys. Easy for fans to pick apart, but he's watching all of them, not just his favorites.

It's also important to note that Griffin is, currently, an injured player. He did not participate in the organized activities of the offseason, and might not be ready for training camp or the start of the season as he continues to recover from the major reconstructive knee surgery he had in January. As upbeat as everyone is about the likelihood of Griffin's recovery, he hasn't yet completed it, and there's no way to know when or if he'll ever be back to full strength. Downgrading him because of the injury is legitimate, as is downgrading him because of the possibility that his playing style and/or the effects of two reconstructions of the same knee in a three-year stretch could make him less effective going forward.

It's tempting to rank Griffin highly because of the greatness we glimpsed in his first season. But in the end, it might be wise to rank him more cautiously until we see it again, and for a longer period of time.

Oh, and a h/t to Twitter follower Ryan Pence (@pencerm) for the "RG XIII" in the headline. He thought of that first.
Tony RomoAP Photo/Tony GutierrezIt's only a matter of time before the Cowboys give Tony Romo a long-term contract extension.
People ask all the time about the status of the contract extension the Dallas Cowboys are going to end up giving quarterback Tony Romo. They ask sometimes as though there's still a question as to whether he'll get it. I consistently answer that he will, and that he should, and for a number of reasons (not the least of which would be the Cowboys' inability to upgrade if they let him leave at the end of the 2013 season), the team has no choice.

Perhaps this latest report, from Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, will help convince those who still think it's possible they don't get this done. Ian's report says that the way Romo's contract is structured prohibits the Cowboys from designated him as their franchise player in 2014. The reason is that Romo's deal still has three more years on it, the final two of which will automatically void, but not until after the deadline for designating franchise players. So they can't tag him, and if the current league year ends without a new deal he'll be a free agent whose price will go through the roof.

Now, this seems like a ridiculous oversight by the Cowboys, but in truth they wouldn't reasonably have been able to franchise Romo next year anyway. The restructuring the team has done on Romo's contract over the years has pushed back a significant portion of his money into those voidable years, and his franchise number would be more than $25 million next year even if they could do it. So they realistically couldn't have done it even if the contract had been structured in such a way to allow for it.

The ultimate point here is a very simple one: Romo is going to get a very nice, long-term contract extension, likely this offseason. The team has been open about the fact that they are discussing this with Romo. They want him to be their quarterback for the rest of his career. They are confident they will get a deal done, and they don't share the fans' impatience because, a) they know huge deals like this take time and, b) they've been able to find ways to add a couple of key guys this week without reducing Romo's $16.8 million cap number for 2013. Once the new deal is done, that number will drop, and they can carry over unused savings into next year's cap if they like.

What Ian's report underlines is the extent to which Romo has the leverage in these talks. The Cowboys need to sign him long-term, for a number of reasons, and he knows it. So why not wait and see what the new deals look like for guys like Joe Flacco (who's already signed his), Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan? Romo's not going to make what those guys make, but they're going to set the top end of the quarterback market and give Romo and his agents useful numbers off of which to work. The only problem Romo has is if he gets into the 2013 season and gets hurt in his contract year and kills his chances of free agency. But that's a deadline that's still more than five months away. In the meantime, Romo is in no rush and doesn't need to be. He's the one holding the cards.

This is a deal that will get done. It's 100 percent certain. And when it does, it's going to be a very nice deal for Tony Romo.
Welcome to the weekly edition of the NFC East Twitter mailbag. At any point during the week, you can tweet a question with the hashtag #nfceastmail, and I will work my way through them at the end of the week and pick a few to answer in this space right here. I hope you enjoy this week's batch.
Washington Redskins

The Redskins' interior offensive line situation looks like a team strength heading into 2013. The one issue is free-agent left guard Kory Lichtensteiger, who may not fit given the salary cap issues, but the Redskins believe they have enough depth to handle it.

The Washington Post examines the issues behind the Redskins' controversial nickname and offers a suggestion for how to change it in case the mayor of Washington, D.C. does decide to make an issue of it as he has hinted he would. As you guys know, I'm all for changing it, but I recognize (as this editorial does) that it's not that simple. I also don't think the solution offered here is an especially good one.

New York Giants

Aaron Rodgers doesn't want to go to the Pro Bowl, so the next alternate on the list is Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who is headed to Hawaii. Obviously, this wasn't Manning's best year, but the Pro Bowl voting (even for the alternates) is multi-layered.

The latest in Ohm Youngmisuk's "Five Giant Losses" series looks at the Steelers game, which I agree was the first time something seemed to be wrong.

Dallas Cowboys

In case you're wondering after reading that Manning thing, Tony Romo is not the next alternate. If Matt Ryan and the Falcons win Sunday and Ryan can't go, the next man up for the NFC at quarterback would be Seattle's Russell Wilson.

Troy Aikman says he's surprised the Cowboys hired Monte Kiffin to switch them to a 4-3 defense, and the former star Cowboys quarterback seems to think big changes could portend more big changes.

Philadelphia Eagles

By the time people were turning in for the night Tuesday, there had been no concrete news on Gus Bradley and his second interview for the Eagles' head coaching job. Adam Schefter reports this morning that Bradley is heading to Jacksonville today to interview for the Jaguars' job.

This is a couple of days old, but Sheil Kapadia's Eagles-related review of last weekend's playoff games is (as expected) interesting and insightful.

How long can the Redskins keep this up?

December, 23, 2012
Nick Foles AP Photo/Michael PerezRyan Kerrigan, right, and the Redskins' defense put enough pressure on the Eagles to key a victory.
PHILADELPHIA -- It's now more real than it's ever been -- this idea that the Washington Redskins can win the NFC East for the first time since 1999 and make the playoffs in Robert Griffin III's first year as their quarterback. They need only to win one more game -- on Dec. 30, at home against the Dallas Cowboys -- in order to make this a reality. Which is why statements like this one have begun to beg for deeper examination.

"We're not playing to make the playoffs," Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield said after Sunday's 27-20 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. "We're playing to win the Super Bowl."

Is he nuts? Would a 10-6 NFC East champion Redskins team be a legitimate threat to run through places like Atlanta, Green Bay, San Francisco or Seattle and win a Super Bowl against the Patriots, Broncos, Texans or Ravens? Cofield admits to dreaming -- in his "down time" -- about playoff matchups and how his team would match up against others it might see. Cofield's one of the Redskins with postseason experience, from his time with the Giants, so he knows what it means to go in as the hot team. And if the Redskins win next week, there won't be a hotter team in the NFC field. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said these Redskins are a team that "expects to win" these days, and that's what gives Cofield his reason for optimism.

"That's definitely the case, and it's a different type of pressure, but that's the way good teams operate," Cofield said. "We've gained that mindset at the right time of year, and we're playing well enough to back it up."

But are they? Is this Redskins defense really playing playoff-caliber football? They gave up 411 yards to the Eagles on Sunday and have allowed an average of 383.1 yards per game for the season, making them statistically one of the worst defenses in the league. The reason they are 9-6 is that the defense has held on just enough in critical spots to support a very high-scoring offense. And because of a plus-14 turnover differential that ranks among the top five in the league. The Redskins' coaches have been working harder than ever with their defensive players on the importance of forcing turnovers since the team emerged 3-6 from its Week 10 bye, and the message is getting home.

"It's OK to bend, as long as you don't break," linebacker Perry Riley said with a smile. "And if you can get that turnover, it doesn't matter how much you bend. If you let them go down the field on you and you force a fumble or get an interception, it doesn't matter how far they got. If you take the ball away from them, they can't score."

This is indisputably true. The question is whether it's sustainable. Can a defense that allows nearly 400 yards a game force enough turnovers to beat Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan in consecutive weeks and make a run at a championship? This is not a question the Redskins haven't pondered. Cofield wrinkled his nose and nodded in acknowledgement when asked whether it was possible, but he quickly brought up last year's Super Bowl between the New York Giants (who allowed 376.4 yards per game in the 2011 regular season) and the New England Patriots (411.1).

"You always want to get stops," Cofield said. "You don't want them to be able to go down the field against you. But the two Super Bowl teams last year didn't have the greatest statistical defenses and there they were. As long as we have the will and the talent to play our butts off, we're confident that we can continue to make those plays."

That confidence is the biggest thing this Redskins defense has going for it right now. There were long stretches in Sunday's game in which they appeared incapable of stopping a Nick Foles-led, four-win Eagles team from picking up a third down or even a fourth down. They needed to stop Foles at the goal line with seconds left to avoid overtime, and had time not run out they may not have pulled it off. It is not a defense that makes you feel as though it can go out there and shut down an opposing offense.

But it is a defense that believes in its own playmaking ability. And that's because it's a defense that's making plays. The pass rush was a non-factor for most of the season after the early injury to Brian Orakpo. But they got five sacks Sunday and 16 of their 30 sacks this season have come during their current six-game winning streak. Griffin remains and will remain the biggest storyline the Redskins have -- regardless of how long their season runs. But he's been a constant pretty much all year. What's turned this Redskins team from a 3-6 mess into a team that's now guaranteed to finish with a winning record is a defense that has found a way each week to make just enough plays. In order to win the Super Bowl, they need to do that five more times, starting Sunday.

"It takes a lot of character on your football team to fight through what we have," Shanahan said. "We've got to get sacks, and we have to get turnovers, and we've been able to do that on defense. Today they probably had 20, 25 more plays than we did [actual number: 22], and that's a little bit unusual with our running game the way it's been. But we took advantage of the turnovers, which negated how many plays they had."

It has been a winning formula in the past, and with the unusual looks the Redskins would be able to throw at their fellow playoff teams on offense (assuming Griffin's knee keeps improving), it could be enough to make them a real threat in January. Assuming they get there, of course.

"The greatness of this feeling will wear off very quickly if we don't get it done next week," Cofield said.

He's talking about a defense that knows it needs to play better but, like the rest of this team right now, believes it's capable of absolutely anything.

Justin Tuck seems grumpy

December, 20, 2012
New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck has a shoulder injury, hasn't practiced this week and says he doesn't know if he'll be able to play Sunday in Baltimore in a game the Giants almost* have to win. Giants coach Tom Coughlin sounds more optimistic than Tuck does about Tuck's status in this Star-Ledger report. And though Tuck's the one whose shoulder hurts, the rest of his comments from Thursday indicate that he may just be in a grouchy mood:
"Maybe we're giving o-lines and offensive coordinators and offenses too much credit," said Tuck, who has just three sacks this season. "Honestly, I think we just need to stop worrying about what people are writing, what people say about our pass rush and just get back to beating people up front. I think if you start listening to what people say about 'You're not getting sacks, you're not doing this,' you start trying to look for answers instead of focusing on the answer, which is you beating the guy in front of you."

The Giants are tied for 16th in the NFL with 32 sacks. They only had one sack Sunday against the Falcons when defensive tackle Chris Canty got to Matt Ryan. According to football statistics website Pro Football Focus, Ryan was only pressured on 14 percent of his dropbacks.

Those numbers aren't going to strike any fear into any opponent and that includes the Ravens. Head coach John Harbaugh said he wouldn't use that word, though he did go on to sing the unit's praises on a conference call Wednesday.

"He shouldn't," Tuck said. "Because there's been years that it should be, should've been fear, but this year we haven't had that. So what have you done lately? That's how the league looks at you and lately we haven't did much of anything as far as getting after the quarterback."

The world waits to see whether this year's Giants team can kick into gear with two weeks left in the regular season the way last year's Giants did, or whether that gear isn't going to be available to them this time around. You can't count the Giants out until they're out, but there are some disturbing signs. For instance, one of the keys to last year's turnaround was a pep talk Coughlin gave to Tuck at around this time about the dangers of feeling sorry for yourself and the importance of fighting through nicks and bruises and other injuries. Whether it's because this shoulder problem is more serious than whatever he was dealing with last year, or whether it's for some other reason, Tuck appears to be giving off that down-in-the-dumps vibe again, and there's no Giants good that can come of that.

*The Giants can be eliminated from playoff contention this week with a loss in Baltimore and wins by the Redskins, Cowboys and Seahawks. If they lose this week and those other three teams don't all win, they'll retain hope for a wild-card berth but not the division title.

Giants must stop leaning on the past

December, 17, 2012
Victor CruzDaniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsVictor Cruz and the New York Giants have just two weeks to salvage what's left of their season.
It would be easy to chalk this up to typical New York Giants behavior -- paste the Saints one week, get shut out 34-0 in Atlanta the next. One good, one bad, never consistent -- that's the party-line book on the Giants, and there are plenty of people inside and outside their locker room who are trying to fit this season into that narrative.

I think they're wrong. I think Sunday's loss in Atlanta was extremely atypical of the Giants -- that it contradicted many of the things we believed we knew about them and that they believe about themselves. And I think the fact that it went as wrong as it did offers the Giants and their fans good reason to think it might not turn out OK this time.

Now, you know where I've stood on this all year: Fool me twice, shame on me. I'm not going to count the Giants out until they're 100 percent mathematically out. What they did last year earned them every benefit of every pundit's doubt. But they've lost four of their last six games and allowed not one, but two teams to pass them in the NFC East standings. They still make the playoffs, at least as a wild-card team, if they win in Baltimore next week and beat the Eagles at home in Week 17. But any assumption that they'll win both of those games is rooted in what they showed you last year -- not what they've shown you this year. And that may be the Giants' biggest problem right now:
"I've been here too long. ...I've seen this too many times before to have any doubt in my mind," Osi Umenyiora said of bouncing back. "I know it can be done. But talking about it isn't going to do nothing. We have to go out there and get it done."

It is time -- perhaps past time -- for the Giants to stop assuming this will all be OK because it was last year. It is time -- perhaps past time -- to look seriously at this year's problems and seek solutions, rather than recycle the same old tricks and assume they'll work again. I get that it's easy for a team that won the Super Bowl to convince itself that it should stay the course. And of course the Giants (who are actually one game better than they were at this point last season) might just flip that switch this week and turn out to have been right all along.

But I argue that there are deeper concerns, specific to 2012, that point to doubt. And I think Sunday's game is a perfect example. If you believe in the narrative about a team that gets up for big games and thrives off of a confidence inspired by past accomplishments and victories, then that's a game you expect the Giants to win. Or at least come within 33 points. Instead, they didn't even show up against a team they beat 24-2 in a playoff game 11 months earlier. Their quarterback played one of the worst games of his career. They couldn't get a yard on fourth down when they needed one, and Matt Ryan couldn't have been any more comfortable in the pocket if it had been surrounded by electrified barbed wire. These facts are what bug you if you're a Giants fan right now. As much evidence as 2011 showed you that this team can get things done in the biggest and most dire of spots, Sunday was the latest in an upsettingly long chain of 2012 evidence that such things shouldn't be assumed.

I heard Carl Banks on WFAN radio this morning in New York talking about "collective will" and wondering whether this year's Giants have enough of it to succeed. I think he's spot-on. This year's Giants have shown an ability to play tough but not to stay tough. They haven't shown the collective ability to make good on their offseason goal of playing more consistent, more dominant football week in and week out. And the worst part is, their answer to this seems to be to wait around for a happy, nostalgic visit from the Ghost of Playoff Race Past -- to assume they'll do it again just because they did it before.

Doesn't work that way. The Giants need to spend a little less time reminding themselves how good they were in 2011 and a little more time focusing on the real, concrete problems of 2012. What is different and fixable about Eli Manning and the passing game? Why can't the pass-rushers get to the quarterback? Why is Lawrence Tynes missing 30-yard field goals? Why can't they summon that big third-down or fourth-down conversion when they need it most?

They didn't have to ask these questions in 2011, when Manning was brilliant every week and Jason Pierre-Paul ranked among the league sacks leaders, the breaks were going their way and they were never out of any game. But this year is different, as every one is, and they have 14 games' worth of evidence to prove it. A long, critical assessment of those 14 games would do the Giants a lot more good this week than any more talk about what they've proven in the past. Because if they keep focusing on last year, they're going to wake up in a couple of weeks and find that this year didn't turn out the way they were certain it would.

How you feeling? Giants-Falcons

December, 16, 2012
As the New York Giants prepare to face the Falcons at 1 p.m. at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, here's one reason for Giants fans to feel good about the game and one reason for concern:

Feeling good: The Giants tend to do well against teams they're convinced they can beat. Decisive victories earlier this year over the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers, two of the teams they beat in last year's playoffs, offer evidence for this. But they didn't beat anyone as badly in that playoff run as they beat the Falcons, who didn't even score on offense in a 24-2 loss. This game is in Atlanta, where the Falcons are unbeaten this year, and that mitigates the memory a bit. But the Giants have a significant psychological advantage as a result of that game, and the fact that they've convinced themselves they're playing playoff games already should only strengthen that advantage.

Cause for concern: Of all of the significant injury absences this week, which include starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw, the toughest injuries for the Giants are in the secondary, where safety Kenny Phillips is out again and top cornerback Prince Amukamara joins him on the shelf. Against Matt Ryan and the No. 4-ranked Falcons passing offense, those absences are bound to show up, and it makes it all the more important that the Giants' pass rush look like it did in January against Ryan rather than the way it's looked for most of this season.

Giants will be shorthanded in Atlanta

December, 14, 2012
The New York Giants have ruled out running back Ahmad Bradshaw, cornerback Prince Amukamara and safety Kenny Phillips for Sunday's critical game against the Falcons in Atlanta due to their injuries. All of the injuries are major as the Giants try to become the first visiting team to win in the Georgia Dome this year and hold off the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East race.

The significance of Phillips' absence has been somewhat overlooked this year due to the playmaking ability of his replacement, Stevie Brown, who has seven interceptions. But Phillips is a top all-around safety without whom the Giants' coverage units, run defense and even pass rush struggle to a greater extent than they do when he plays.

Amukamara has been a big part of making that better. In a down year for Corey Webster, Amukamara has emerged as the Giants' best cornerback. Playing against the No. 4-ranked pass offense in the league, the Giants will replace him with rookie Jayron Hosley. The Giants may be getting a bit of a reciprocal injury break, as star Falcons wide receiver Roddy White has missed the last three days of practice with a knee injury and is questionable for the game. But Atlanta still comes with Julio Jones at wide receiver and Tony Gonzalez at tight end, and each is very dangerous as a target for quarterback Matt Ryan.

Which speaks to the idea of keeping Ryan and the Atlanta passing attack off the field -- something the Giants could have a more difficult time doing with their running game banged up. Wilson ran for 100 yards last week against the Saints, and that along with his performance this year on kick returns has some Giants fans excited that he's finally getting a chance as the starter. But while he's looked more explosive than Bradshaw has this year, that's no guarantee he can hold up for a whole game as the starter, grinding out yards between the tackles and picking up blitzes in the backfield to help protect Eli Manning. Wilson is a rookie, the Saints have the worst run defense in the league, and he's likely to find a going tougher this week in Atlanta. With Andre Brown out for the season due to a broken leg, the only two backs the Giants have on the roster besides Wilson are Ryan Torain and Kregg Lumpkin.

Now, very often, when the Giants have these kinds of games in which it looks as though injuries could do them in, they toughen up and play even better. The regular-season game in New England last season is among the most prominent recent examples, along with the game earlier this year in Carolina that Bradshaw and Hakeem Nicks had to miss. So there's no reason to think these injuries mean the Giants can't beat the 11-2 Falcons. They're just going to have a harder time doing it than they'd have if they had all of those important starters healthy.

Final Word: NFC East

December, 14, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Home-field disadvantage? The Atlanta Falcons are 6-0 at home this season, have won 10 straight home games overall, and are 32-7 in the Georgia Dome over the past five seasons. So the fact that they are playing at home this week should help them, right? Well, maybe not. Their opponent is the New York Giants, who not only beat the Falcons in a playoff game in New Jersey in January but have won seven straight games against the Falcons in Atlanta. The most recent of those games was a 31-10 victory on Oct. 15, 2007, but the Falcons have not won a home game against the Giants since Oct. 1, 1978, when they were able to hold Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik to 86 yards on 7-of-21 passing and win on a 9-yard touchdown run by Haskel Stanback in the fourth quarter. Yeah, that's right. You know where to come for your Haskel Stanback notes.

[+] EnlargeJones
Brad Barr/US PresswireTackling explosive Atlanta WR Julio Jones after he touches the ball will certainly be a point of emphasis for the Giants on Sunday.
Keep 'em in front of you: In their playoff victory in January, the Giants held Falcons wide receivers to a total of just 47 yards after the catch -- a figure that accounted for 23.6 percent of Matt Ryan's passing yards in that game. So far this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, only 39 percent of Giants opponents' receiving yards have come after the catch, which is the second-lowest such figure in the league. However, the possibility that cornerback Prince Amukamara and safety Kenny Phillips could miss the game due to injuries could hurt the Giants' ability to prevent big plays after the Falcons catch the ball.

Uncommon streakers: The Washington Redskins have won four games in a row and are trying for their first five-game winning streak since the 2005 season. They visit the Cleveland Browns, who have won three games in a row and are trying for their first four-game winning streak since the final four weeks of the 2009 season.

Getting to 300: Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is averaging 347.3 passing yards in home games this season, the best such mark in the NFL according to ESPN Stats & Info. He has passed for at least 300 yards in each of his past five home games. However, Sunday's opponent is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have allowed fewer than 300 yards in eight straight games. That's the longest such streak since the 2008 Steelers went 14 straight games without allowing 300 yards. Playing without injured cornerback Ike Taylor could affect that, but Romo's top receiver, Dez Bryant, has a broken finger, which could impact Romo's 300-yard streak.

Season of giving? The Steelers lead the NFL with 16 turnovers in the past four weeks. This should be good news for the Cowboys, but the Cowboys have struggled this year to take the ball away from opponents. Only five teams -- Miami, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Indianapolis and Philadelphia -- have fewer takeaways this season than the Cowboys' 14.

*Bonus playoff-picture note* The 11-2 Falcons are playing for something. They can clinch a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs with a win or a tie and loss by either the Packers or the 49ers. And if the Falcons win and the Packers and 49ers both lose, the Falcons would clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. No NFC East team can clinch a playoff spot this week.

Better to receive: A Friday debate post

December, 14, 2012
There are few teams (if any) in the NFL that can match the New York Giants for the quality of their top two wide receivers, but they play one of them Sunday. The Atlanta Falcons' outstanding duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones is a vital reason the Falcons have the No. 4-ranked passing offense in the league this year. And when you look around the league to try and find starting receiver tandems that compare with the Giants' Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, Atlanta is usually where you settle.

So I thought we'd have a debate: Which pair is better? Which two would you rather have on your team?

Some food for thought:
  • SportsNation

    Which team has the better starting WR tandem?


    Discuss (Total votes: 3,923)

    So far this year, White ranks 8th, Cruz 11th, Jones 13th and Nicks 48th in receiving yards. White is ninth in the league in catches (and second on his own team, behind tight end Tony Gonzalez), while Cruz is 10th, Jones 19th and Nicks 50th. Cruz has caught nine touchdown passes, Jones seven, White five and Nicks three.
  • Nicks has had significant injury issues that have cost him games and limited his production when he's played. Jones has been banged-up as well, and it bears mentioning that White has missed practice the last two days with a knee injury and is being called a game-time decision for Sunday.
  • For their careers, in terms of regular-season numbers, Nicks has 252 catches for 3,686 yards and 27 touchdowns in four seasons. Cruz has 158 catches for 2,540 yards and 18 touchdowns in two seasons. Jones has 117 catches for 1,956 yards and 15 touchdowns in two seasons. White has 607 catches for 8,514 yards and 50 touchdowns in eight seasons.
  • In their postseason careers, White and Jones have combined for 29 catches, 257 yards and two touchdowns and have lost all three games in which they've played, including one to the Giants in January. In Nicks' and Cruz's postseason careers, they have combined for 49 catches for 713 yards and five touchdowns and have won all four games in which they've played, including the most recent Super Bowl.
  • It's also worth considering their quarterbacks' impact. Atlanta's Matt Ryan has never been without White, and the two best seasons of his career have been the last two, with Jones on the team. New York's Eli Manning won a Super Bowl throwing to Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer four years before he won one throwing to Nicks and Cruz. Those who would want to argue that the Manning is more responsible for the Giants' receivers' success than the Falcons' quarterback is for his receivers' success have some support for that argument.

Personally I think White's the most accomplished of the group, having excelled for the longest period of time. And if I were drafting right now, factoring in their ages and potential as well as present-day value, I believe I'd take Jones first and Nicks second. Nicks' injury issues scare me, and they're the main reason I can't elevate him over the Atlanta guys even though I'm a well-documented fan of his abilities, worth ethic and accomplishments. They're also the reason I have a hard time deciding whether I'd take him or Cruz in that draft. And if I had to pick one of these guys for whom to draw up a fourth-and-seven play with the season on the line, White's the guy I'd pick.

They are all fantastic, and this is definitely not a clear-cut decision (though I'm sure some in the comments section and on Twitter will insist it is). I think I'll take the Falcons' guys by a hair. They haven't done it in the biggest of spots, as the Giants' guys have, but that's not necessarily on them. I think in terms of overall ability and credentials, they have a slight edge right now. For me.

I welcome your thoughts, as always.