Blame FrankenSuperHurricane Sandy. Blame weak defense or bonehead coaching calls that put your young phenom quarterback in a wide receiver position, if only for a play. Whoever is at fault, three teams in the NFC East are floundering below .500, and the one that is not happens to be playing a team this week that can actually beat them. With half the season behind them, it’s time for these teams to step up to the plate – er, Line of Scrimmage and start amassing more numbers in the W column, not the L. Here’s a take on which teams have a chance of doing that and which teams need to erase their chalkboards and start over.
Carolina Panthers @ Washington Redskins
Both these teams are at the bottom of their division, although Washington’s 3-5 record trumps Carolina’s shameful 1-6. Trade rumors would have you believe the Panthers will field 22 brand new players on Sunday afternoon post-trade deadline (“Niners Inquire about Smith,” “Carolina Looking to Dump Williams?”), but it’s unlikely anything at all will change in the lineup, leaving the Redskins free to run all over them.
Or will it?
Cam Newton and Robert Griffin (I refuse to call him RG3 or R2D2 or whatever the hell they’re calling him), the two QBs facing off, are young guns who both have something to prove. Both are as capable of rushing the ball as they are at throwing it, so play calling will be the offensive key to this match up. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan hopefully learned his lesson last Sunday to keep his star QB behind an offensive line, however weak: He sent Griffin downfield in the WR position, and Griffin not only was called for offensive pass interference, but he also got laid out by Steelers’ safety Ryan Clark. Shanny, you’re supposed to protect the QB, not leave him out there in the wind.
If play calling is the offensive key, then the key to overall game success has to be defense. Statistically, both teams have some pretty slim numbers at D, but the Panthers’ numbers are looking far better than the weak Redskins’. The Skins are allowing 406 yards per game to the Panthers’ 344. Expect a lot of QB rushes, as both these guys are not afraid of wheeling out of the pocket, and expect both defenses to react accordingly. Still, the Panthers should shock the NFC East with a win over the Redskins.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ New York Giants
Assuming all the waters have receded from New Jersey, the game is being played at MetLife (Giants) Stadium at 4:25 pm, and the Giants are undefeated at home this season. In fact, you’d have to go back to December 2011 to find the last loss at home for the Giants. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, can’t win on the road. Nonetheless, it should be a great battle between two Super Bowl champion quarterbacks.
A Ben Rothlesburger--Eli Manning almost guarantees the game will be a slugfest. Team records do not tell a complete story, and this interconference game should only further muddy the waters as to who’s better, the AFC or NFC. (In truth, much like tides, cicadas or global warming, it goes in cycles.) Big Ben and Eli are about even in stats (Eli with a few hundred more passing yards, Ben with a couple more touchdowns). Both have sturdy front lines that give these QBs opportunities that others might never see. But the Steelers have a not-so-secret weapon that has made it to starting position, and he has a lot to prove. His name is Jonathan Dwyer.
Pittsburgh may have never given him a second (or third) glance at the football if not for key RB injuries (Rashard Mendenhall’s Achilles and Isaac Redman’s ankle). Dwyer had two back-to-back games in which he ran for over a hundred yards. He is explosive, he can make things happen, and he can take the wind out of a team’s sails. Since the Giants are already allowing 113 rushing yards per game, let’s call them Dwyer’s. Anything more is gravy. Steelers will win in New York over the Giants.
Dallas Cowboys @ Atlanta Falcons
Who is going to deliver the Falcons’ first loss of the season? Anyone? Anyone? Romo?
Matt Ryan is hot as the Falcons’ QB, no doubt about that. As the league's number three passer, Ryan has a QB rating of 103 and 17 TDs under his belt to a mere six interceptions. He has taken over offensive coordinator Dirk Koetner’s new offense and hasn’t missed a step. The only problem for Ryan is the Cowboys’ defense: They are ranked fourth in the league and third in pass defense. Unfortunately for Koetner, the Falcons don’t have much of a ground game. Ryan is carrying this team, maybe not single-handedly, but he definitely carries the bulk of the weight.
The Cowboys are also ranked third in passing yards to the Falcons’ eighth. In fact, just looking at the Cowboys’ numbers makes you scratch your head and wonder why they are 3-4 halfway through the season. A lot may have to do with Cowboy QB Tony Romo’s apparent color blindness. He’s throwing the ball well, to the tune of 2,073 yards. He just happens to be throwing to the wrong team a lot of times. With three first-half picks last Sunday against the Giants, he had to try and hoist his team out of the hole in the second half. And he more than made up for his pick-offs, leading the team to 24 points. Unfortunately, the damage was already done, and the Cowboys dropped a home game to take them below .500.
In fact, Romo’s 13 INTs are worst in the league. He had better keep his eyes on (or away from) Atlanta’s free safety Thomas DeCoud and strong safety William Moore, who have combined for 6 picks this season. But it’s hard for a team, fans, or even the Romo himself when he tells the “Dallas Morning Star” the day after losing to the Giants and throwing 3 picks in a few minutes of the game, “I would have booed us too.” Unfortunately for Dallas and NFC South fans who are praying for an Atlanta loss and slump, this won’t be the week the Falcons get one in the L column.
Philadelphia Eagles @ New Orleans Saints
Rest well, drag yourself through the workday on Monday, because the last NFC East game of the week will take place on Monday night with a battle in the bayou. The Eagles are looking a lot like Leslie Nielson in “The Naked Gun,” where, amidst the chaos of an exploding fireworks factory and bedlam in the streets, he takes to the bullhorn and announces, “Remain calm. Nothing to see here.”
“Michael Vick is our starter. We have faith in Michael Vick. Remain calm. Vick will not be benched.”
Nor should he. Yet. But let’s face it, the Eagles have dropped three in a row (four if you count the bye week), and two of those losses were at home. By contrast, his New Orleans doppelganger is the Number One QB in the NFL. The only problem is that the Saints can’t seem to win like they have been for the past few seasons since obtaining Drew Brees.
Of course it takes 11 players to win a game, even if the QB is as good as Brees and New Orleans thinks he is. And Vick isn’t single-handedly losing games in Philly, because there’s no “I” in “team.” Blame the bad pass protection, blame the defense, blame Eagles coach Andy Reid. Because they’re all just as responsible.
Even with Brees’ outstanding job at his position, the team is still coachless, and they have a league-worst defense, with 475 yards against-per game. This might just be the team for Vick to redeem himself and bring a win back home with him to Philadelphia. If it doesn’t turn into a high scoring game by both teams, the Eagles should walk all over the Saints.
Three teams in the NFC East need wins badly this week. But hey, it’s football. A last-place team can beat a number one team on any given Sunday.
That doesn’t make it a safe bet.