Like a lot of people, I thought the National Football League's NFC East Division would be a two-team race. On paper, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys looked like the class of the league. The New York Giants were a notch below them and the Washington Redskins would bring up the rear. Five weeks into the 2011 regular season, I have no idea which of the four teams will win the division. Here's an early report card on each one with my best playoff guess:
1. WASHINGTON REDSKINS (3-1) Steve's Playoff Chances 35%
File this under the "I never saw it coming" category. The Redskins have been a great story early on, thanks to a strong defense that has made life miserable for the opposition. In those three wins, Washington's pass rush has tortured opposing quarterbacks. Their schedule has played to their favor as two of their wins are over the miserable Rams and Cardinals. Add in a running game that has a good rookie in Roy Helu and solid but not spectacular performance by Rex Grossman, the Skins have brought some early excitement to our nation's capital. Despite Grossman's bold prediction that Washington will win the NFC East, I do not see their early success lasting all season. But so far, so good.
2. NEW YORK GIANTS (3-2)Steve's Playoff Chances 40%
Every year, the New York Giants seem to do the same thing. They play so well over a stretch of 3 or 4 games, that everybody believes they are heading back to the Super Bowl. Then, when you least expect it, they lay a "Giant" egg at home against a team they have no business losing to. Hence, their performance yesterday against a Seattle team that is awful away from home. Despite their inconsistency, the G-Men still have an attractive team on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Eli Manning is off to his best start in years, and Victor Cruz appears to be a star receiver in the making. However, the Giants' schedule is one of the toughest in the NFL, with their next 3 games against the AFC East and then upcoming showdowns with Green Bay, New Orleans, and San Francisco. I still believe Bill Cowher will be coaching this team by the 2012 season.
3. Dallas Cowboys (2-2) Steve's Playoff Chances 60%
The Philadelphia Eagles invested heavily in Michael Vick, and so far the returns are not good. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Like every team in the NFC East, the Cowboys are an enigma. They have as much talent as anybody in the NFL. Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Felix Jones is one potent group. However, Austin has been hurt, Bryant inconsistent, and Romo nursing fractured ribs. Add a young and inexperienced offensive line and you have a team that has trouble playing 60 minutes of good offense. When you do get a strong offensive game from the Cowboys, the defense has let them down. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was supposed to bring a more aggressive approach to the defense and at times, that has been the case. According to footballoutsiders.com, the Cowboys defense ranks 8th best in the league, including 4th against the run. However, if Romo's offense continues to turn the ball over with big leads, it doesn't matter how well a defense is playing. That's the big reason Dallas is 2-2 and not 4-0. Austin is returning to practice and that will help, but the schedule does not get any easier this week when the Boys travel to Foxborough to play Tom Brady and the Pats. The Rams, Seahawks, Dolphins, and Cardinals could help pad the Cowboys record heading into a tough December stretch of divisional clashes.
4. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (1-4) Steve's Playoff Chances 50%
Quick...How does a team that was labeled the NFL's preseason "Dream Team" only have one win in their first 5 games? Especially when their passing offense ranks 8th, rushing offense ranks 1st, and passing defense ranks 7th? That is one of the great mysteries of the early part of the 2011 regular season. If you noticed that I left out rush defense, that is because the Eagles rank 30th out of 32 teams. That rush defense killed them again Sunday against Buffalo, but not before 4 Michael Vick turnovers put them in a huge hole. Vick has blamed his team's struggles on guys "trying too hard" to make the plays. In five weeks, they have squandered huge leads and also failed to come back from a large deficit. Despite all these struggles, I still think the Eagles are my best bet to make the playoffs. Their offense is averaging 25 points and almost 450 yards per game, and that is with a suspect offensive line that has caused Vick to take a tremendous amount of punishment. Since arriving in Philadelphia, Vick has become a pocket passer, but he still possesses tremendous running skills and scrambling ability. His lack of size (5-11) also makes his passes more prone to deflections. Still, if there was a team I had to gamble on, it would be the Eagles. They have too much talent to occupy the basement in the NFC East and I do not trust any of the other 3 teams in the division to pull away from the pack. If the Eagles can play well next Sunday in Washington and head into their bye week 2-4, they might be on the verge of a winning streak. Their Sunday night home game with the Cowboys on October 30th should tell us which of these teams will be playoff bound.