NFC East: nfc west

The West was won, but not by enough

December, 2, 2011
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.
The "Hot Button" question on our site right now is, "Which team that finished under .500 in 201o will make the playoffs in 2011?" Mike Sando picks the Rams, who only needed to win eight games last year to make it, but didn't. John Clayton picks the Cowboys.

Now, I know, I know... everybody's going to say that everybody always picks the Cowboys and they always disappoint. We've been over that ground and we'll be over it again. I side with John here, and you already knew that, but if your opinion is different you're going to think we're nuts. Fine. Way it goes.

I'm a little more interested in this piece of John's rationale, where he says the fact that the Cowboys and the rest of the NFC East teams are scheduled to play the NFC West in 2011 is a reason to expect them to win more games:
"Last season, the NFC West went 3-13 against the NFC South, helping three NFC South teams to have winning records. After going 1-3 against the NFC North last season, the Cowboys figure to go at least 3-1 against the quarterback- and defensive-challenged NFC West and have the potential to go 4-0."

John's right that the quarterback situations in Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona remain murky at best, and that's reason enough to expect the division to be down again in 2011. His point about the impact that bit of scheduling had on the 2010 NFC South, which had two playoff teams and a 10-6 Tampa Bay team that just missed, is a very good one. And it may mean good things for the Cowboys, Giants, Eagles and Redskins in 2011. Not a sure thing, of course, because the other NFC South team last year finished with the worst record in the league. You still have to put a representative product on the field. But sure, if the NFC West turns in another year in which no one finishes .500, that's a good thing for the teams in the NFC East.

Of course, all of this assumes the whole 16-game schedule as currently written will be played. And of that, I have my doubts. But that's a topic for another post.