In a weekend when the NFC East teams were confined to killing each other off, both games would become perfect metaphors for what has transpired over the first fifteen weeks of the season. Every season seems to produce its own intrigue as to which of the four classic franchises in one of the two oldest divisions in the NFL is at the moment part of the league's elite. In September no one was able to accurately predict which of the four would be in the best shape come December. However, in the intermediate period one team collapsed early, one collapsed late, one soared above, and the last one hasn't yet spoken its last words. Here is the synopsis of the day that has defined one of the most unpredictable sequences that has come to pass this season, from the viewpoint of each team. Why does this come this week and not in two weeks? First of all this season has coincided with a nightmarish semester for me, so this is only my second post this season, and there's no guarantee of a third. Also, the Dallas Cowboys are effectively out of playoff contention, and the division title is almost certainly Philadelphia's to salvage in the next two weeks. The only significant question left is whether the Giants will earn the wild card berth or lose it to Green Bay.
New York Giants: The New Meadowlands a house of cards?
The Giants entered the season consecrating a new home, but after Sunday if they don't hustle in the last two games against Washington and Green Bay they may have to exorcise a poltergeist from it. After all, there have already been comparisons in the past few hours between Michael Vick's magic performance against them and the Giants' inconceivable collapse in the 1978 "Miracle at the (old) Meadowlands" against Dick Vermiel's Eagles.
Unlike last year, the Giants' defeats against Philadelphia will not necessarily eliminate them from the playoffs. In fact the door is still open for a post season where the two can collide once more as the Giants did in their 2007 Super Bowl season when they were swept by Dallas in the regular season and then came back to topple them in the divisional playoffs.
Objectively, this writer views the Giants as a team that lacks nothing that is needed to be an NFL juggernaut. On offense they have a quarterback in Eli Manning who possesses all of the character and talent needed to coordinate a complex offensive scheme. He is both capable of throwing the long pass as well as elude rushers and make key scramblers. Their double-edged sword in the back-field of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs keeps opposing defensive coordinators guessing on every play whether there will be a rush or pass. Their receiving corps includes such underrated phenoms as Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham, and tight end Kevin Boss. On defense they possess a terrifying line that includes Barry Cofield, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiora that has been responsible for injuring Matthew Stafford and Tony Romo and derailing the seasons of both of their teams. Tom Coughlin still looks completely in control as head coach (no internal fissures or intrigue are evident against him, not even after last year's disastrous December). And under Coughlin is former Bills skipper Perry Fewell who has emerged as a newly discovered talent after such amazing performances by the Giants D as their Week 4 domination of Chicago at home.
Conversely, as displayed on Sunday and in other games, each of these elements seems to possess a self-destruct mode. Brandon Jacobs is known for his fumbling fiascoes and his temper tantrums after blown plays. In the Week 2 Manning Bowl against Indianapolis he created an incident by chucking his helmet into the stands after being repeatedly stymied on run plays. The following week Eli Manning negated an impressive day on the yardage odometer by committing repeated turnovers and handing the game to the Tennessee Titans. In Week 10 at home against Dallas, the Giants were across the board favorites against Jon Kitna and the Cowboys who had just axed Wade Phillips. But a power outage at the new stadium and a breath-taking 106-yard pick-six by Brian McCann punctuated the game that has become recognized as the recovery point after the loss of Phillips and Tony Romo.
Today's disintegration has become a typical story line of late for Tom Coughlin's Giants. After three quarters of stellar performances on all sides of the field, the Giants' offense seemed to enter quicksand and sink into their own home turf. Their defense tried to hold onto Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, and DeSean Jackson with butterfingers. The Giants surrendered a 65-yard TD reception by Brent Celek, a 33-yard touchdown scramble by Vick, and a 13-yard touchdown pass from Vick to Jeremy Maclin to allow the Eagles to tie the game. Then with 14 seconds left in regulation, the G-Men elected to punt, and due to a high snap threw the game into DeSean Jackson's clutches, which observers of last week's game know is sure recipe for self-destruction.
Prospects: In the short term, New York faces a head-on collision with fellow wild-card candidate Green Bay next week at Lambeau Field, and finishes the season at FedEx against Washington. They still have what to hope for after the Packers' own topsy-turvy season that has included disappointing divisional setbacks against Chicago and Detroit on the road. Preseason pundits saw the Packers as the odds-on favorite to win the NFC North, whereas in the East they adopted a wait and see attitude in regards to the Giants and the other three teams. Fifteen weeks later, the Packers are on an even playing field with the Giants, a situation that is to their own discredit.
With their 2010 schedule still far from over with, it is hard to pin down where New York will be come the Spring and looking ahead to a season that may be wiped out altogether. In a volatile climate catalyzed by the dismal season sweep against the Eagles, Tom Coughlin is now in a position similar to Wade Phillips at the tail end of last year; he must clinch a playoff berth in order to have a chance to remain the head coach of the Giants. The wild card berth may offer a brief reprieve for them if they face the first among mediocre champions of the NFC West (Seattle or St. Louis). The less desirable scenarios would involve the Chicago Bears in a rematch of their early season contest in New Jersey, although this would take place on the road at freezing Soldier Field, or even another game on the road against the Eagles. Even after passing this test, Coughlin would face daunting challenges: A choice between road games in Atlanta, Philadelphia, or Chicago depending on the final layout of the playoff seeds.
Whatever the outcome, playoffs or not, the Giants roster is at the moment one of the most stable, and GM Jerry Reese will probably resist any urge for major moves. The only major variable remains once again Tom Coughlin.
Philadelphia: From a quarterback controversy to an MVP controversy
Doubters questioned Andy Reid's decision to barter his long-time starting quarterback to a division rival and entrust his own team to his two back-ups. But even before the Eagles hit the field opening day against Green Bay, the more far-sighted spectators saw that Reid was taking a necessary gamble. Retaining Donovan McNabb would have placed unprecedented pressure on Reid; anything less than a division title may have guaranteed the termination of Reid, McNabb, or both for the 2011 season. Anything less than a Super Bowl appearance would have been greeted with groans from the Eagles' frenzied "cheering" section, as well as calls to fire Reid anyway.
But if his blockbuster trade gave him some breathing room, it nevertheless placed an even longer bridge for Reid to cross than if he hadn't done it. He remained gripped in a roster contest between two excellent candidates to replace McNabb, the long-time understudy Kevin Kolb or the Pandora's box of former Falcons superstar Michael Vick. In Week 1 Kolb's injury against Green Bay gave Reid by default an opportunity to prove whether Vick had any hope of running his offense. Vick came up short that afternoon, but redeemed himself two consecutive weeks against Detroit and Jacksonville, only to be injured against Washington in Week 4. For five weeks the Eagles entered a period in limbo between Vick and Kolb and entered their bye week with a 4-3 record following a disappointing road loss at Tennessee. Philly emerged in Week 9 with Vick as their tentative starter and he responded by winning a duel at home with Peyton Manning. The Eagles then traveled to Washington and avenged their earlier loss by totally overwhelming the Redskins in a performance that commentators Steve Young and Matt Millen agreed was like a video game.
Although nobody was willing to put money on it, many viewed the current Eagles' leadership of the East as a distinct possibility given the talent they began with. The key chink in their armor has become a defense that doesn't know how to keep points off of the board; they entered today's game ranked 20th in the NFL in points allowed, only a tenth of a point ahead of Detroit and Washington. Even in their epic blowout of Washington they eventually granted the Skins 28 points. The Eagles have compensated for this insecurity by proving time after time that their scoring outbursts are as hard to predict as the creature's attacks in the first Alien flick. Teams that for three quarters have contained Vick and Co. find themselves being consumed alive as the clock ticks away.
Prospects: Andy Reid's new-look Eagles with their young offensive backs and their flashy quarterback have provided their home fans with a dazzling display over this long season. This could be forgotten within seconds if the Eagles somehow lose the division, or if they perform below par in the playoffs. Fortunately the Eagles are one of only two teams to have defeated Atlanta,and they are eligible for a first round bye if they post a better record than Chicago. Philly would rather face the Giants if forced to play in the first round, although currently the Green Bay Packers are looking far less dangerous than they did when they came to Philly Week 1 and sidelined Kevin Kolb.
Nevertheless, there is very little to indicate a coaching change for next season. The major alterations will have to come on defense.
Dallas: Putting buckets under a leaky roof
If Jerry Jones was pained to be forced to amputate Wade Phillips this season, afters a nearly squandered home win against Washington he may be encouraged by the possibility of looking within the organization for the next official head coach. Crediting Dallas's pathetic season to the Tony Romo injury would be dodging the real cause of this forgettable year. Phillips never instilled a sense of urgency in his roster, and this was evident from the Week 1 tragedy in Washington up until the massacre in Green Bay that finally ended Phillips' reign. In the weeks before Romo's injury against New York, the Cowboys would play three quarters of seemingly rudderless football, and then attempt a frenzied comeback that would inevitably come up short (Washington) or end disastrously (Chicago). After his injury they became completely comatose for two weeks against Green Bay and Jacksonville. Since then Dallas has gone 4-2 and stands a realistic chance of finishing in third place facing the even less cohesive Cardinals on Christmas and Philadelphia on the road to round off the season.
Jason Garret does deserve consideration for the head coaching job, but I still believe that Jones will hold his cards close to the chest until he has expended all options. Expect interviews with Perry Fewell of the Giants and maybe even Bill Cowher. Dallas's roster shows gaping holes in need of improvement. Their defensive secondary lags behind New England's, New Orleans', and the Jets', all of which take the field with the intension of creating turnovers and even putting points on the board. The Cowboys have improved their receiving corps, supplementing the already lethal Miles Austin with Dez Bryant, and finally extracting some dividends from Roy Williams. The O-line should be the first department targeted in the draft, but a quarterback should also be put on the list.
And speaking of QB's, the time has finally come to give Tony Romo an indication that there is a future without him. Blaming Romo for his own injury would be unfair. But his flawed leadership before that game helped dig Dallas into a pit whereupon his being injured allowed them to be neutralized as a contender from that point on. I submit that Dallas should seek a successor for Romo come season's end. Vince Young, whose days in Tennessee may be over, is the first candidate, but who knows which play callers may become available this off-season?
Washington: The Shanahan & Son's dwindling investment portfolio
I predicted that Mike Shanahan's hiring last year would make the NFC East only more interesting, especially considering his past association with Wade Phillips on Dan Reeves' coaching staff. Instead the Phillips-Shanahan connection never proved to be a factor and the real story has been the sequel to last season's internal strife that has made the Skins' Landover, Maryland home look like a new exotic location for a Jersey Shore season. Shanahan and Washington owner Daniel Snyder touted the blockbuster Donovan McNabb trade as being the magic elixir that would elevate the red and gold into contention with their three division nemeses. McNabb's disappointing performances have been weaved together in order to scapegoat him for Washington's disappointing performances. However, McNabb cannot be blamed for the defensive sandcastle that allowed 52 points at home against the Eagles (seven were credited to an interception for a touchdown). In the Week 8 match-up in Detroit, Shanahan yanked McNabb in an infamous decision that he attributed to the lack of knowledge that the QB had of the 2-minute offense. But if Shanahan was going for a more secure, reliable option, it is hard to see that in Rex Grossman who in 2006 called the season finale between his Bears and the arch-rival Packers "meaningless". Grossman fumbled to start the series he was brought in to lead, and the Lions returned the turnover for a touchdown and Detroit won. The loss in Detroit made Washington the first team to lose back to back meetings with Detroit since their division rival Bears were swept by them in 2007 after replacing Grossman with Brian Griese.
Last year's controversy centered around the front office's handling of head coach Jim Zorn. To be fair, the Skins were forced to do something once it became clear that Zorn's bumbling post-season press conferences were forming a pattern. But Snyder and his top henchman GM Vinny Cerrato effectively lit a fire cracker in their closed palm when they imposed an overcomplicated decision making system that would confuse NASA launch crews. The damage caused during the Cerrato era is still felt today. In his first stint in the late 90s Washington became overly invested in aging stars like Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith, and in his second term they acquired high quality players that still had futures ahead of them but that often had inflated egos and poor choice of battles. The best examples have been defensive lineman Albert Haynseworth, a free agent who left Tennessee, and cornerback DeAngelo Hall a former Raider and Falcon. Jim Zorn, a coach whose talents were totally limited to the offensive end of the field, could not contain the two boisterous defensive players. Hall was involved in two altercations, including one against his former Falcons teammates and a fistfight with the Giants' Brandon Jacobs that drew Haynesworth in on the way to a blowout loss. Haynesworth has not ceased to provide more material that throws a shadow over the Skins' decision to sign him to $100 million. Already before joining Washington he had had several ethical face-offs with the NFL, including the Andre Gurode stomping incident. Rather than rein in Haynesworth and Hall, Snyder and Cerrato shackled Jim Zorn and eventually sacrificed him to the media hounds come season's end.
Snyder and Bruce Allen, Cerrato's replacement as GM, took a huge gamble in terms of public image when they singled out Mike Shanahan as their top target to replace Zorn. The early rumblings about Shanahan being "next year's coach" short circuited the Skins during the final portion of their 2009 season, and inflated expectations about this season. But the front office duo failed to prepare for a forthcoming conflict between Shanahan and Haynesworth, which quickly matured in the training camp period to a full-blown standoff over an infamous "conditioning test". Throughout the season the future hall of fame coach seemed more occupied by internal intrigues with his players than with keeping Washington in contention, and that's what has produced another dismal season.
Prospects: Firing Mike Shanahan would be a fairly surprising course of action, even after his destructive first season with the club. Last week he opened up the gates for such a scenario by benching McNabb who was their prime acquisition last off season. He effectively stated that the remaining three games would be a proving ground for Rex Grossman and John Beck. Unfortunately, Redskins fans don't view them as such; two of those being against hated division rivals New York and Dallas. Grossman's admirable showing in the fourth quarter on Sunday notwithstanding, the fans never accept losses to Dallas. The remaining two games are set to be even more difficult for Washington: a road meeting with Jacksonville followed by the season finale at home against New York. Both of those are against teams gunning for a playoff spot. If Shanahan can pull off one victory in those two weeks his situation might be redeemed and Rex Grossman accepted as the tentative future of the quarterback position at FedEx Field. However, if both games are lost it will be near impossible for Shanahan or anyone in the Redskins organization to declare that this season has been an improvement over last year's 4-12 ordeal.