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NFC East Spin Cycle: Week Five

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By Eric Edholm

The Giants gained ground in the NFC East race as the Redskins (who lost a QB) and Eagles (who might change QBs) fell in close games and the Cowboys licked their wounds on bye. Here's a quick spin around what happpened the division in Week Five.

GIANTS

What we learned: A 14-0 deficit is just par for the course. For the second time against a team coming off a horrible season, the Giants have staked an opponent a two-TD lead at home — and in this case, it was to the winless Browns. But in both cases, the Giants have come back with a vengeance. They fired back offensively, despite being without WRs Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden and with TE Martellus Bennett missing time during the game, and eventually overwhelmed the Browns in a 41-27 victory. The Giants caught fire during a 27-3 run (including the final 20 points of the first half) as Victor Cruz and Ahmad Bradshaw turned in personal bests with three receiving TDs and 200 yards rushing, respectively.

What’s in store next: The Giants have come out of the first five games in decent shape with a 3-2 mark, tied for first place by record in the NFC East, but serious business lies ahead. Starting with Sunday’s game at the 49ers, the Giants must face either divisional opponents or 2011 playoff teams the rest of the way, and six of those come on the road. The bye is several weeks away (Week 11) and Sunday’s three-time-zone trip against the mauling Niners will be an excellent test for the defending champs. They can’t afford to stake another lead or the 49ers will do what they did to the Jets and Bills the past two weeks and slowly grind them down over four quarters, playing from ahead.

What the heck? Few teams can claim, live and breathe the “next man up” mantra more effectively than the Giants. They have suffered a number of key injuries, and the dropoff has not appeared large in most cases. Andre Brown stepped in for Bradshaw in Week Two, keying a victory, and Bradshaw in turn took the load against the Browns when Brown was knocked out of the game early on. In Week Three’s short-week win, Barden was huge in Nicks’ place. And Sunday, Stevie Brown and Will Hill — pressed into duty because of secondary injuries — both made big plays in the win. Additionally, rookie WR Rueben Randle, who had caught only one pass entering the game, stepped up with six receptions for 82 yards and drew two long interference calls. Credit a mid-week film session with Eli Manning as a reason why Randle was prepared to enter the fray in a much-needed way. The Giants find ways to win when problems arise, a huge credit to Manning, Tom Coughlin and the system of accountability this team has built.

EAGLES

What we learned: The Eagles won ugly, one-point victories the first two weeks of the season but were unable to do so in Week Five as their turnover woes once again bit them following a week without incident. Digging themselves into a 10-0 deficit that was buttressed by two Michael Vick lost fumbles (Philly recovered a third), the Eagles did show some salt in coming back to take the lead, led by Vick, and the defense held its ground for most of the day. But there also were problems on that side, as they went sack-less for a second straight game, suffered some coverage breakdowns (once more, Nnamdi Asomugha was a guilty party) and allowed some uncharacteristic runs.

What’s in store next: The Eagles will try to maintain their share of the NFC East lead in a conference game against the Lions, who have spent their bye week in exile after a spate of special-teams breakdowns. It’s also the second straight game in which the Eagles’ opponent will have come off their bye, meaning they won’t be the ones with fresh legs. Although this game has the potential to be an offensive sortie, with both teams capable of burning out the scoreboards, these offenses haven’t exactly set the world on fire week in and week out this season. After the Lions game, the Eagles head to the bye week with a slew of tough games to follow.

What the heck? Vick’s season turnover tally has reached a Spinal Tap-esque 11. That’s a ridiculous total through five games, especially considering they played giveaway-free ball against the Giants in Week Four. The Eagles’ defense has bailed him out a few times this season, but Vick can’t continue to play fast and loose with the ball and expect to remain the starter. Andy Reid has benched Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb in-season before, and he has an intriguing option in rookie preseason hero Nick Foles. Going to the third-rounder while the Eagles are fighting for a playoff spot (and while Reid is trying to retain his job) would be a drastic step, but it’s far from being ruled out at this point. The season’s key stretch lies ahead, and Vick and the Eagles must head into the middle third of the season as a more disciplined unit.

REDSKINS

What we learned: The Redskins gamely battled the unbeaten Falcons toe to toe, showing they can hang with one of the NFC’s best teams, but ultimately fell just short. But the biggest story was the massive hit incurred by rookie QB Robert Griffin III, which resulted in a concussion. Fellow rookie Kirk Cousins replaced him and fired a 77-yard TD pass soon after entering the game, but Cousins’ two late picks also hurt. The Redskins had a good game plan defensively and made some plays, but also allowed Falcons QB Matt Ryan to loosen up in the second half and complete some big throws. The Redskins remain competitive, but they fell below .500 again at 2-3.

What’s in store next: What will follow in lieu of Griffin’s concussion is that he will have to undergo a battery of neurological tests to ensure that he is capable of starting against the 4-1 Vikings in D.C. Either way, you could see the Redskins lean on impressive rookie RB Alfred Morris, who joined Eric Dickerson (wow) as the only backs to start off their careers with five games of 75 or more rushing yards in each. But note this: Morris was held to six yards on three carries following Griffin’s injury, so there is a definite correlation between Morris' success and Griffin’s presence in the lineup.

What the heck? Griffin needs to learn how to protect himself. Period. His penchant for taking big hits — and some of it is most definitely on him — is going to come back to haunt him and his team. Griffin runs too carelessly at times, and could get away with it much of the time at Baylor, but it’s no longer acceptable in the NFL. He needs to learn how to slide effectively, throw the ball away or (as was the problem with Sunday’s hit) get out of bounds. It does no good to gain an extra six to 12 inches of ground in that situation by staying in and absorbing an absolute shell-shocker from Falcons LB Sean Witherspoon. Griffin must step out and live to fight another day. The decision and subsequent injury hurt his team when he left the field. The NFL’s concussion rules are quite clear, and even if Griffin feels he can return to the field, the medical staff might not allow it. Besides, he better serves his team on the field than on the injury list. In retrospect, the Redskins knew exactly what they were doing when they drafted insurance in the fourth round with Cousins.

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