NFL MIDSEASON REPORTS - NFC EAST
Before the season started, the NFC East was generally recognized as the most competitive division in football. With three teams ranked in the Football Outsiders top 10, it hasn't disappointed. The Giants have the inside track to repeat as division champions, but they'll be tested in the second half of the season by the Eagles and Cowboys — and even the last-place Redskins have shown that they're not going down without a fight.
NEW YORK GIANTS (6–2)
Never underestimate the importance of a random bounce of an oblong ball. In their Week 2 overtime win at Philadelphia, the Giants scored a touchdown when a Plaxico Burress fumble rolled about 20 yards into the end zone, where Tim Carter pounced on it. If the ball had bounced into the hands of a Philadelphia player — or rolled five more yards through the end zone — Philadelphia would likely have won the game, the two teams would have identical 5–3 records, and the Eagles would own the tiebreaker.
As it is, the Giants are in first place. The maturation of their passing game, headed by Eli Manning, has made a big difference this season. Last year, Manning tried to force the ball into coverage too often. This season no quarterback distributes the ball more evenly than Manning. Amani Toomer and Tiki Barber have 32 catches apiece; Plaxico Burress and Jeremy Shockey each have 31. The ground game is also strong: Barber leads the league in rushing with 830 yards, and Brandon Jacobs has played brilliantly as his backup, with 277 yards on 58 carries. The offensive line has stayed healthy all year, and right tackle Kareem McKenzie is playing particularly well.
The Giants defense is stout, but the pass rush has been spotty: With just eight sacks between them, defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora are well behind last season's pace, and Strahan won't be adding to his sack total any time soon, thanks to sprained foot ligaments he sustained Sunday against Houston. Fortunately, middle linebacker Antonio Pierce is having a great season, and offenses are finding few holes to run through against Big Blue. The defense, Manning's improvement and wins against all three division rivals make the Giants the clear front-runners.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (4–4)
Quarterback Donovan McNabb is having his best year, despite (or perhaps because of) the loss of star wide receiver Terrell Owens. But bad luck and costly mental errors have a Philadelphia team that could easily be 7–1 in danger of missing the playoffs.
Besides McNabb, the key to the offense is running back Brian Westbrook, one of the best all-purpose backs in football. Westbrook has 500 rushing yards on just 97 carries and is McNabb's favorite target with 38 catches. In his second NFL season, wide receiver Reggie Brown has emerged as one of the league's best deep threats with a 19.3 yards a catch average.
The defense uses the blitz-heavy schemes of coordinator Jim Johnson to pressure opposing quarterbacks. The Eagles have already recorded 26 sacks (only three fewer than they had all last year), despite losing their best pass rusher, Jevon Kearse, to a season-ending knee injury in Week 2.
If coach Andy Reid can manage the clock, and the Eagles don't suffer the misfortune of another kicker booting a 62-yard-game-winner against them, Philadelphia should make the playoffs. But with a schedule that doesn't get any easier, they'll need better luck in their last eight games than they had in their first eight.
DALLAS COWBOYS (4–4)
Coach Bill Parcells made a wise move by putting Tony Romo under center and sitting Drew Bledsoe on the bench. Dallas's offense has more big-play potential now that the more mobile Romo can buy time using his feet. For the Cowboys offense to continue to improve, Parcells should make another switch: backup running back Marion Barber has proven himself a better runner than starter Julius Jones. Barber averages 5.2 yards a carry to Jones' 4.2,and Barber has scored six touchdowns to Jones's three.
If the offense can get going, the Cowboys will be in good shape because their defense is significantly improved from last year and now ranks among the best in the league. Defensive ends Marcus Spears and Chris Canty, linebacker De-Marcus Ware, cornerback Terence Newman, and safety Roy Williams are becoming some of the NFL's top players at their positions. The Cowboys' defense should continue to excel for the foreseeable future because each of those players is 28 or younger.
Despite the young talent on both sides of the ball, the Cowboys' season will probably end without a playoff berth, and the end of the season could also be the end of Parcells's coaching career. Parcells looks and sounds worn down this year, and the coach who has claimed many times that he was retiring might finally do it.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS (3–5)
A rash of injuries has sidelined several key defensive players, including defensive backs Shawn Springs, Carlos Rogers, and Pierson Prioleau, and defensive tackles Cornelius Griffin and Joe Salave'a. Washington's once-strong defense has collapsed, especially against the pass.
Washington's offense has picked up a lot of the slack, especially after running back Clinton Portis recovered from the preseason shoulder injury that limited him to just 10 carries in the first two weeks of the season. Quarterback Mark Brunell has solid numbers, completing 63.8% of his passes and throwing just three interceptions, but at some point the Redskins will have to make a hard decision about whether the team's long-term interests are better served by benching Brunell and giving last year's first-round draft pick, Jason Campbell, some valuable experience.
That point will come when Washington is eliminated from postseason contention. Although their 3–5 record puts them just a game behind a host of 4–4 teams in the NFC wild card race, Washington's remaining schedule is too hard to make a push for the playoffs realistic. The Redskins showed Sunday with their win over Dallas that they're still playing hard, but they're the worst team in football's best division.
Projected order of finish: Giants (12–4), Philadelphia (10–6, wild card), Dallas (8–8), Washington (7–9).
Mr. Smith is a writer for FootballOutsiders.com.