NFL Nation: NFC East race 2012

NFC East race: The case for the Cowboys

December, 21, 2012
12/21/12
3:30
PM ET
This is the third in a three-part series looking at each of the three teams tied for first place in the NFC East with two weeks to play and making the case for why that team will win the division. The case for the New York Giants appeared here Wednesday, and the case for the Washington Redskins appeared here Thursday. Today, we look at the Dallas Cowboys, who have won five of their last six games, and the reasons to believe they will keep it going and win the division.

As we have been saying here since training camp, it's important when evaluating this year's Cowboys to try and throw out everything you think you know about the Cowboys.

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsCharacter and chemistry appear to be fueling a playoff charge for Jason Garrett's Cowboys.
They entered this season with the same high hopes they and every other team take into every season in an NFL in which last-place teams routinely turn into first-place teams overnight. But the broader focus in Dallas over the past couple of years has been on building a lasting foundation for a team that can contend year in and year out. Their draft was future-year focused -- they used their first two picks on a brilliantly talented cornerback they saw as a foundation piece instead of getting two players who could plug 2012 holes, and their mid-round picks were spent on developmental players.

Everybody I talked to in Oxnard, from Stephen Jones to Jason Garrett to Jason Witten, spoke about building around young leaders such as Sean Lee on defense and DeMarco Murray on offense. The Cowboys were operating as a calm, level-headed, big-picture organization.

But a funny thing happened on the way to that future they're trying to build in Dallas. After a 3-5 start, the Cowboys have won five of their past six games and moved into a first-place tie in the NFC East with two weeks to go. All they have to do is beat the Saints at home this week and the Redskins in Washington next week, and they are division champions. The reason to believe this is possible has less to do with how hot they are right now and everything to do with the players having bought into that vision that Garrett and the rest of the organization has been selling.

There is elite-level talent in certain spots on this roster, to be sure. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are playing like Pro Bowlers at the outside linebacker spots. Tony Romo is playing some of the best, most consistent and responsible quarterback of his life. Dez Bryant has been one of the very best wide receivers in the league for the past month and a half and is winning fans inside and outside his locker room by insisting on playing these final weeks in spite of a broken left index finger. Murray, in the three games he's played since his return from a foot injury, is running like the tough, young leader they believe him to be.

But this Cowboys season is at least as much about what they've overcome as it is about where they're great. The losses of Lee and fellow inside linebacker Bruce Carter left the defense thin in the middle, and they've been without safety Barry Church, nose tackle Jay Ratliff and defensive end Kenyon Coleman for large chunks of this season as well. They beat the Steelers last week without all of those guys and without that talented first-round cornerback, Morris Claiborne, who had a concussion and couldn't play. The Josh Brent drunk-driving tragedy that took the life of practice squad defensive lineman Jerry Brown has deprived them of the services of Brent, who was playing well, and was certainly the kind of event that's capable of throwing a team off of its preferred path.

Through it all, though, these Cowboys have stayed focused and determined and calm. I don't think the tragedy galvanized them, because I don't think they've looked any different since the tragedy than they did before it. They have, for some time now, been showing a great deal of resolve -- an ability to stay in and win games that, in the past, they very often found ways to lose. I think that shows you a group of players that believes they're all in this together, building something as a team that they believe can be great.

Whether they win this division, take a wild-card spot or come up short this year, Cowboys fans have to like the direction of the franchise. They have to like that these players, many of whom have long been maligned for coming up small in big spots, are playing tougher and smarter and more clutch than they ever have before. When the Cowboys gather next summer for training camp, many of the same old questions people always seem to have about them will have been answered by the way they played the second half of this season.

In the meantime, though, they may just win the division. And if they do, that resolve, toughness and team dynamic that should help the Cowboys in the long run is exactly the reason why. Garrett's bunch has a seriousness of purpose it hasn't always had. It focuses not on what might have been had there not been so many injuries but rather what can be if the next pass is completed, the next big tackle made. The Cowboys have been trying to build something for the future, and there have been aspects of the team this year (the offensive line leaps to mind) that show they're probably not all the way to where they want to be just yet. But some of the very important character aspects of this project are happening at an accelerated rate. And that's why these Cowboys may just be the team that comes out of this tie and wins the NFC East.
This is the second in a three-part series that will look at each of the three teams tied for first place in the NFC East with two weeks to play and make the case for why that team will win the division. The case for the New York Giants appeared here Wednesday, and the case for the Dallas Cowboys will appear Friday. But today we look at the Washington Redskins, who have won five games in a row, and the reasons to believe they will keep it going and win the division.

[+] EnlargeMike Shanahan
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsMike Shanahan and his staff have the Redskins in a groove offensively.
The coaching that is going on in Washington right now is high-level stuff. We've read much this week about offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and the ways in which he's adapted his head-coach father's offense to electric rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. But the fact that they were able to produce at a high level offensively last week with Kirk Cousins making his first NFL start shows that this is a nimble scheme being run by talented, intelligent coaches who right now appear to have an answer for everything.

The Redskins lead the league in rushing at 164.8 yards per game. And while rookie Alfred Morris looks like a back who was too good to last until the sixth round, even he'd tell you that a big reason for his success is the perfect way in which he fits the zone-blocking run-game scheme Mike Shanahan's been running since his Denver days. The offensive line has performed well, fullback Darrel Young is playing at a high level, the receivers all block, and as a result the Washington run game stands as a legitimate threat on each and every down. But what heightens the threat is Griffin, who's a threat in and of himself to run at any time, and forces the defense to account for possibilities that just don't exist when you're defending a more traditional offense.

There have been many questions about whether the Washington offense is sustainable long-term, but it's clear that the players are buying in completely and learning more and more as the weeks go along. It's an evolving offense, and some of this coaching staff's greatest accomplishments are establishing the players' belief in the coaches and making the players feel invested in that evolution. The Redskins right now look like a mature team that smells an opportunity and knows what to do with it. And with a rookie quarterback, a rookie running back and an offensive line about which there were preseason questions, that demonstrates a coaching staff that's earning its money.

I think you see the result of excellent game-to-game coaching on the defensive side of the ball as well. This is a Redskins team that has played basically the whole season without its two starting safeties, lost its best pass-rusher and a starting defensive lineman to injuries early in the season, and is even more shorthanded in the secondary lately because of the drug suspension of cornerback Cedric Griffin.

Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has been able to scheme each of the past five weeks around the personnel shortages, often making in-game adjustments that have made the defense look totally different in the second halves of games. He's deployed linebacker Rob Jackson strategically, correctly deciding when he's best used as a pass-rusher and when he's more useful in coverage. He's managed to move cornerback DeAngelo Hall around in different coverages and even some blitz packages designed to help hide Hall's one-on-one weaknesses. The line has toughened up around nose tackle Barry Cofield as the season has gone on, and while this defense will never be confused with the 1985 Bears, the Redskins have shown an ability to scheme and adjust enough to win. The way the offense functions most weeks, they don't always need to do that much.

Griffin is obviously the wild-card here, and the element the Redskins have that sets them apart once the game begins. But the remaining two teams on the Redskins' schedule -- the Eagles and the Cowboys -- are teams that have already seen him once. That didn't necessarily help the Giants the second time they saw him, but the point is Washington can't rely on Griffin himself as the element of surprise in either of these two games. They're going to need to come up with something new to show the Philadelphia and Dallas defenses if they're going to win both games and take the division. But the reason to like their chances is that the coaching staff is showing a deft week-to-week ability to do just that, and the players are buying in and executing the plan extremely well.

NFC East race: The case for the Giants

December, 19, 2012
12/19/12
1:15
PM ET
This is the first in a three-part series that will look at each of the three teams tied for first place in the NFC East with two weeks to play and make the case for why that team will win the division. The cases for the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys will appear on Thursday and Friday. But today we look at the defending NFC East and Super Bowl champion New York Giants, and the reasons to believe they will rebound and win the division this year.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesCan Eli Manning and the Giants repeat last year's playoff run?
If you're of the belief that the Giants will win the NFC East, you're banking on track record. Of the three teams tied for first place, the Giants are the ones who've actually shown you they can do what needs to be done. You don't know whether the Redskins or the Cowboys will wake up in Week 16 with the race in their own hands and seize the opportunity or be overwhelmed by it. It could go either way for both of them.

It could go either way for the Giants, too, but the difference is that we've seen them seize it. We know that this group of players and coaches is capable of making good on this kind of a chance. This time last year, the Giants were 7-7 and needed to win their final two games to reach the playoffs. They didn't lose again until September, picking up a Super Bowl title along the way. This year, they're 8-6 and need to win their final two games to reach the playoffs. They need help, even if they do go 2-0, to win the division. But if somebody said you could only pick one of these three teams to go 2-0 the rest of the way, the experience of 2011 would push you to pick the Giants. And if they're the only one of the three that goes 2-0, they win it.

The counterarguments are all rooted in what we've seen (or not seen) from the Giants this season. The pass-rushers can't get to the quarterback. Eli Manning can't get on a roll. Ahmad Bradshaw and Kenny Phillips, significant, "glue" players on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, can't get on the field. Tom Coughlin can't get a handle on how to light a persistent spark under his team the way he did last year after that loss to the Redskins dropped them to 7-7. There is evidence to support the idea that this year, when the Giants dig down deep inside themselves for that extra something they need to win these big games, it might not be there as it was every time last season. And that does happen. Not every year can be magical, and last year for the Giants surely was.

There's also the math. The Giants could go 2-0 and still, if the Redskins or Cowboys do the same, not win the division (though they'd still make it in as a wild-card team). This is the reason to believe they have less of a chance to pull this off than those other teams have -- because it's not, technically, in their control.

But the thing with the Giants is that you can't get last year out of your head. It was easy to doubt them last year, especially when they were 7-7, but from that point on, they looked totally different and completely unstoppable. You just can't shake the notion that the same thing could happen again, and then wouldn't you feel silly for having doubted them? Of the three teams in this tie, only one is a Super Bowl champion with a quarterback who's proved his ability to win when all appears lost. Only one has a coach who pushed the right button at this time one year ago, and can ask his players to remember instead of hope or believe. The Giants are the team whose track record tells you they're less likely to fall apart over these next two weeks than their division rivals are. And while every year is different and last year guarantees nothing, the memory of what the Giants did one season ago stands as the biggest reason to believe they can do it again.

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