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NFC East Spin cycle: Week Four

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Posted Oct. 02, 2012 @ 1:18 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

Updated Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 1:15 p.m. ET

At the quarter pole, the Eagles, Giants and Redskins and Cowboys are all at .500 or better, although the Giants currently sit at 0-2 in NFC East games. The Eagles’ Sunday-night victory over the Giants puts them atop the division at 3-1. This still promises to be a fun divisional race this season.

COWBOYS

What we learned: There’s always potential for one of these performances. Tony Romo blew up for five interceptions, although WR Dez Bryant was definitely to blame for some of them, and the defense played its worst game of the season. The easy thing to do with the Cowboys is overreact to one game, but take a step back and you see a theme: This team is prone to wild variations in their play. Week One was a resounding win. Week Two was a resounding thud. Week Three was a hard-fought defensive battle. Week Four was a total nightmare. Get to know it — this team just isn’t equipped to handle the season-long rigors of the division race, but it is talented enough to beat good teams on a given night. Monday just wasn’t the team’s night, as the Bears completely outclassed them, 34-18.

What’s in store next: A long, soul-searching two weeks (it’s their bye) full of speculation about the futures of Romo, Bryant and head coach Jason Garrett. Some of it, naturally, is unfair and reactionary. But there is legitimate concern with the team, especially with the other side of the ball. Sure, the defense was missing three starters to start the game (including late scratch OLB Anthony Spencer with a pec muscle) and lost LB Bruce Carter early on, but the regression in the game was almost stunning. CBs Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr, perhaps left twisting a bit with shaky safety play, nonetheless each had their poorest outings of the season. Four of the next five games (Baltimore, Carolina, Atlanta and Philadelphia) are on the road, sandwiching a home game against the Giants, who will be seeking Week One payback, in the middle. Ouch.

What the heck? Romo now has 10 turnovers in four games — more than the Eagles’ Michael Vick — which quickly is approaching his 2011 season total of 13. The Cowboys had no answer for the Bears’ rush-and-cover approach, which included a few new defensive wrinkles the team was not ready for. Clearly, Romo and Bryant were on different pages. Romo expected Bryant to change his route based on a sight adjustment in the second quarter, but the receiver never did; Charles Tillman easily picked off Romo’s pass and ran it back for a tone-setting TD and a 10-0 lead. Several more times through the night, Romo and Bryant failed to connect, with Bryant dropping passes and Romo off target. It’s a duo that just hasn’t taken off as expected this season.

GIANTS

What we learned: There’s nothing too fundamentally wrong with this team through a 2-2 start, but there are a few areas that need to be cleaned up. The run game remains an inconsistent venture, and the defense has not generated as many big plays as it did during its best stretch last season. The biggest problems right now sit in the secondary — and partially with the pass rush, too. The Giants failed to generate a turnover against the Eagles and Michael Vick, who had 12 in three games coming in. They played a more controlled game, sure, but the Giants didn’t make enough impact plays with their injury-plagued secondary or force enough of the action up front with their talented defensive line.

What’s in store next: The defensive shortcomings, which included allowing LeSean McCoy to rush for 121 yards on 17 carries in the second half after limiting him to two yards on six carries in the first, must be cleaned up before the Browns come to MetLife Stadium Sunday. Despite all the Browns’ flaws (they’re 0-4), they have made some plays offensively and have been competitive defensively. The Giants also hope to continue getting healthy and getting WR Hakeem Nicks, who missed the loss in Philly, back on the field. Nicks’ replacements stepped up, but his presence can make the offense hum even better.

What the heck? Interestingly, some of this team’s greatest strengths came up a little short in the loss to the Eagles. Eli Manning was mostly good, and he led a critical drive with ease to give his team a late 17-16 lead, but Manning also put his team in a bad situation by being unnecessarily greedy. With 25 seconds left, trailing 19-17 and at the Eagles’ 26-yard line — well inside PK Lawrence Tynes’ range — Manning chose to go for the carotid artery, and it ended up being a bad decision. Emboldened by two consecutive pass-interference calls against the grabby Eagles secondary, Manning chose to go for a fade route to WR Ramses Barden; the X-receiver was not his first option, Tom Coughlin later said. Manning’s throw was off target, and Barden felt the need to interfere with Asomugha, moving the ball back 10 yards (and out of Tynes’ range) to the 36. “Not a good throw by me,” Manning said. Tynes’ subsequent FG tries — one before an Andy Reid timeout, and one after — both missed and the Giants lost. Manning is still the man in the fourth quarter, but he made a mistake there.

EAGLES

What we learned: Ugly or not, the Eagles jumped to the head of the division with a 3-1 record following the 19-17 victory over the Giants. It was a game the Eagles had to have in the sense that they curbed the turnovers (zero) after 12 in the first three games of the season and played a more conservative, balanced and patient approach, despite it not working as planned early. The team had a mere 19 rushing yards, mostly by Michael Vick, on 12 carries in the first half but stuck with the running game, and it resulted in a banner performance by LeSean McCoy, who finished with 123 yards, 121 of which came in the second half. Defensively, the Eagles (save for a shockingly bad series in the middle of the fourth quarter) were exceptional against the run and good enough against the pass (especially on third down; the Giants converted just 2-of-9 tries when passing) to earn the win.

What’s in store next: Congrats on the big win, Eagles. Now you must go to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers in what is always a highly charged intrastate rivalry. They play nearly every year in the preseason and once every four years in the regular season, and it typically is a physical war. The area the team likely will spend the most time working on this week is special teams. Bobby April’s units were inconsistent again, especially the coverage groups, which allowed Giants KR David Wilson (36.2 average on six kickoff returns) to earn great field position time after time, and the return units, which netted little.

What the heck? It was an adventurous night for CB Nnamdi Asomugha. Not off to his best start this season, Asomugha suffered a poke in the eye in the second quarter, came out of the game and was supposed to go to the hospital for further tests. But he told the medical staff to scrap that plan. Asomugha returned to the game after passing various vision tests and was a key figure in the deciding drives of the game. He was beaten for 31 yards on a fade route to Ramses Barden and then for 41 yards by Domenik Hixon, who slipped away from Asomugha’s off coverage down to the Eagles’ 8-yard line as the Giants took a lead in the fourth. Later, while protecting a one-point lead, Asomugha was flagged for pass interference that placed the ball at the Eagles’ 27-yard line and inside FG range. The Giants, having witnessed all this, got greedy and attacked him again. But it was Barden, not Asomugha, who was called for pass interference on the next play, and the subsequent penalty moved them out of Lawrence Tynes’ range. It was enough — barely — to hold on to victory.

REDSKINS

What we learned: The Redskins won an important game, avoiding a 1-3 start, in holding off the Buccaneers despite three missed FG attempts that could have made the 24-22 final score a more comfortable margin. The offense has been the calling card through four games, scoring 123 points, but the shocking thing is that there is room to get even better. WR Pierre Garcon adds a dimension that was clear Sunday, and the run game can be even more effective as the RB position deepens and the O-line continues jelling. Sadly, it’s a similar story on defense, even though it allowed only 22 points. The lack of pressure was the surprise, but the second-half secondary play was indicative of the problems the team faces with its current personnel.

What’s in store next: This is why winning Sunday was so important: The Redskins did not want to head into arguably their hardest stretch — home games against the Falcons and Vikings (combined record 7-1) and trips to the Giants and Steelers — two games below .500. They’ll try to find a way to steady PK Billy Cundiff, who likely kept his job by making the game-winning kick after three prior misses, and cure the pass rush, which got to Bucs QB Josh Freeman for a sack only one time on 42 dropbacks. Another lingering issue: penalties. Eight more Sunday for 73 yards, so the excuse of replacement officials now officially falls on deaf ears.

What the heck? Injuries played a strange but important role in Sunday’s win. Before the game, S Brandon Meriweather, who was set to make his season debut, ran into WR Aldrick Robinson in warmups, knocking both out of the contest in bizarre fashion. Meriweather hurt his knee; Robinson was knocked unconscious briefly and was treated for a concussion. Both are expected to be OK. But they also got good news and contributions from the walking wounded. The Redskins had to be thrilled to see Garcon, who fell on a Robert Griffin fumble for a TD, and OLT Trent Williams, who had a big game (albeit with a few slip-ups) considering the way he was limping through the week and not practicing effectively. They might not have won Sunday if those players didn’t gut their way through the game.

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