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NFC Beast Rules

9/22/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- From time to time (daily), I've said the NFC East is the most competitive division in football. It's an easy statement to defend, and it leaves the possibility that another division, top to bottom, might be better.

But at the risk of being labeled a homer (imagine that), it's time to throw out the qualifications and definitively say that the NFC East is the best division in the league. For a time, we honored the AFC South, which last year featured two heavyweights (Colts and Jags) and a playoff team in the Titans. Even the division's piƱata, the Texans, reached respectability last season. But those days have come and gone.

No matter what we attribute it to, the great Peyton Manning has looked pedestrian this season, the Jaguars have lost the core of their defensive line and despite the Titans' early-season success, it's hard for me to believe that Kerry Collins can lead a Super Bowl charge at this point in his career.

At this point, anyone the AFC sends to Tampa will be a decided underdog. Last year's representative, New England, is reeling from a spanking at the hands of Tony Sparano and the Dolphins. That game has the entire league re-thinking its stance on the single wing.

Sunday was once again about the NFC Beast establishing its supremacy. Its "worst team" sent the pride of the NFC West, the Arizona Cardinals, home with their first loss. And let's not kid ourselves. The Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks and 49ers may comprise the worst division in football. (Go ahead and delete the word "may.")

The Eagles dispatched of and pretty much dismantled the best the AFC North had to offer Sunday. When Juqua Parker has 2.5 sacks, you know it will be a long afternoon. A week after losing a 41-37 thriller at Texas Stadium, Philadelphia battered Ben Roethlisberger and their cross-state rivals, the Steelers. To his credit, Big Ben waited until the fourth quarter to finally tap out. He allowed the svelte Byron Leftwich to endure the ninth sack of the afternoon.

The Giants were pushed to the brink by a desperate Bengals team, but Eli Manning donned his Super Bowl cape and led the team on two late scoring drives. For the sake of this blog entry, we won't focus on the fact that the Bengals contributed to the cause with pitiful clock management at the end of regulation.

The king of inspirational T-shirts, Tom Coughlin, chalked up his team's 26-23 to the "power of will," which led linebacker Antonio Pierce to issue the funny line that it was the one phrase his coach hadn't lifted from someone else.

And that brings us to the Monsters of September, the Dallas Cowboys. No matter how some of you may loathe the thought, this is currently the best team in the NFL. In front of a national TV audience, they walked onto the hallowed grounds of Lambeau and pushed the Packers around.

As I've said several times lately, the knee-jerk reaction in some precincts that the Packers are better off without Brett Favre has been absurd. After watching Aaron Rodgers play reasonably well in his first two starts, pundits and fans alike attempted to close the books on the man who has inspired a nation to play sandlot ball in Wranglers.

If the Packers are truly one of the best teams in the NFC, I didn't find any evidence last night. I watched a quarterback who looked as if he was starting his third game in the league. Rodgers had no interest in staying in the pocket past "one Mississippi." As one Cowboys defender put it last night, it was "1-2-3 run!"

Yes, the balance of power has shifted from the AFC to the NFC, but we need to be more specific. The NFC's Super Bowl representative is coming out of the East. I've tried to defend the Colts, Chargers and Jaguars as possible late-bloomers this season, but all three of those teams are seriously flawed. The Colts have looked one-dimensional on offense, and that dimension (the forward pass) hasn't been reliable. As we discussed earlier, Jacksonville appears to be thin on the defensive line, which is a remarkable development when you consider that it was the strength of the defense in 2007.

And since most of us can agree that this league is all about the quarterback, I think it's safe to say that Tony Romo, Donovan McNabb and Eli Manning have been the best in the league through three games -- and Jason Campbell has been solid in his team's two wins.

On Sunday night, the Cowboys won a game in which Romo didn't play particularly well (by his standards). It's a pretty strong indicator when you can dominate a good team when your best player doesn't have his "A" game. And speaking of off nights, did anyone spot T.O. during the Cowboys' 27-16 victory?

One of the league's top receivers has two catches for 17 yards and the Cowboys roll. C'mon, don't act like you didn't see a huge game from Miles Austin coming.

Running backs Marion Barber and Felix Jones gashed the Packers throughout the first half, and then Romo and Austin lit them up in the second half.

The Cowboys left no doubt as to who was the superior team. But the celebration was short-lived because their most bitter rivals, the Redskins, are headed to town.

"There's never a chance to catch your breath in this division," linebacker Bradie James said. "If there's a better division out there, I haven't heard about it."