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NFC East Spin cycle: Giants, Redskins on collision course

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By Eric Edholm

Although the Cowboys and Eagles missed on late-game opportunities to make it a clean sweep for the division (after, frankly, a bad Week Five for the division), the Giants and Redskins both turned in statement victories in advance of their meeting in Week Seven.

COWBOYS

What we learned: A missed field goal changes everything. Had Dan Bailey’s 51-yard attempt sailed a few yards to the right, and through the uprights, we’d be talking about how the Cowboys’ run game had been addressed (227 yards, and effective no matter who was in the game), Tony Romo and Dez Bryant were clutch and that the team went into a tough environment to get a hard-earned victory. Instead, we’re left to question Bryant’s two-point drop, Garrett’s time management and the intelligence and poise of a team that committed 13 penalties and allowed an untouched 108-yard KO return for touchdown. It’s nearly impossible to possess the ball as long as the Cowboys did, for 40:03 (the 10th-most by a losing team in the past 20 years), and lose.

What’s in store next: There’s no more rest for the weary. The Cowboys stay on the road next week (and they’ll be there three of the next four weeks, too) as they travel to Carolina to face the Panthers, who were on bye this week. It could be a shootout considering the Panthers have mostly struggled on defense, the Cowboys have lacked playmaking ability in the secondary and both special teams have shown their warts at times, too. Garrett and the Cowboys had a great offensive game plan against the Ravens and clearly used their extra time off well to prepare. But they will have to turn around and face Cam Newton and the Panthers, which always poses problems because of the QB's unique skill set.

What the heck? In the final 32 seconds of the game, the Cowboys ran one offensive play. We’ve killed Garrett before for his time management, but once more he and the Cowboys mishandled the final possession badly. They had at least 15 seconds of clock to play with, to run another play (or two) after Bryant caught the ball at the Ravens’ 33-yard line with a timeout left. The blame is spread evenly to Garrett and the players, many of whom loafed back to the line of scrimmage, in settling for a 51-yard FG attempt. It unfolded almost exactly like the end of regulation of the OT loss to the Cardinals a year ago. Garrett’s postgame explanation lacked sense. It’s becoming a serious problem, one that was supposed to be fixed, and the Cowboys’ 13 penalties also make Garrett look bad.

GIANTS

What we learned: Anyone want to bet against the Giants as a repeat Super Bowl possibility? This might not be the week to do so. Coming off their most impressive game since the Super Bowl, the Giants completely dominated the 49ers (whom some hailed as the NFL’s best) on their home turf in a rematch of the NFC title game that was supposed to be the Giants’ comeuppance. Instead, the Giants are in nearly the same spot they were a year ago at 4-2 following a bounceback victory. The Giants certainly hope to avoid the topsy-turvy ride that followed, but if it results in another title, they would put up with it. Sunday’s across-the-board dominance in the 26-3 win proves that you have to consider the Giants one of the four or five best teams in football — if not the best.

What’s in store next: The Giants head back in the division for two important games, the next one against the Redskins at home in only the Giants’ third 1 p.m. start so far this season, which Tom Coughlin definitely will welcome. What he won’t welcome is the challenge of facing Robert Griffin III, who has given almost every Redskins opponent some serious issues. He burned the Vikings’ top-10 defense for 138 rushing yards and two TDs, including a 76-yarder to ice the victory, and passed effectively in Sunday’s win. Another thing to prepare for: Eli Manning struggled badly last season, which might have been his finest, against the Redskins with four interceptions and zero TD passes in two losses.

What the heck? The Giants cranked up their mothballed pass rush for six sacks. They had eight in the five games coming in. What gives? “The defense finally decided they were going to come out and play today, and they did,” Coughlin said. So what was different? Well, the Giants had used the same quartet to rush the passer in third downs and obvious throwing situations with Osi Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka. On Sunday, they rotated in Marvin Austin and Adrien Tracy and moved Kiwanuka around effectively. It not only resulted in the six sacks but it also sped up the clock of 49ers QB Alex Smith, who was picked off three times. “When he (Smith) threw the ball, we had corners and safeties right on the guys the passes were intended for,” Tuck said. “We got pressure on him. Even when we didn’t sack him we had guys in his face, which made it difficult for him to step up and throw the ball accurately.”

EAGLES

What we learned: The Eagles have lost three of four games, and in each of the losses they lost the turnover battle and made countless avoidable mistakes. Sunday’s 26-23 overtime loss to the Lions was particularly maddening because the Lions committed 16 penalties for 132 yards; the Eagles’ nine penalties of their own helped counterbalance that. Perhaps the worst part was that the loss felt a lot like last year’s early-season failures. Whereas this season’s Eagles managed to win some games that they perhaps did not deserve to, Sunday’s setback was a game they most certainly should have won. That was the theme of last season, and before we say that the 2012 Eagles are much better than their ’11 brethren, it should be noted that they are only a game ahead of last year at the same point at 3-3 vs. 2-4.

What’s in store next: Week Seven is a bye for the Eagles, but like most teams this season, the extra rest will come with fraught. They’ll dissect the 3-3 start, most notably Sunday’s hurtful loss that included a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter that the Eagles couldn’t salt away. The coaches and players alike will have to come up with answers to some of the streakiness that helped result in numbers like this: Following Jeremy Maclin’s 70-yard TD catch with 5:18 remaining, the Lions gained 180 yards on 24 plays and scored 13 points to the Eagles’ minus-15 yards on six plays and zero points. That included the fourth quarter and overtime, in which the Lions outscored the Eagles 20-10 after being dominated through most of the middle of the game.

What the heck? The offensive line is in rough shape. C Dallas Reynolds is struggling to get up to NFL starter speed, ORG Danny Watkins has yet to show he’s a first-round talent and left tackle has been a problem since Jason Peters went down in the offseason. So given that information and the fact that Michael Vick was under duress most of the afternoon, you would think that the Eagles would call things a bit differently offensively at game’s end. It’s tough to question the play-calling, necessarily, on the penultimate drive, but why was Bryce Brown (and not LeSean McCoy) getting the ball when McCoy had just given the team six yards and a favorable 2nd-and-4 with 3½ minutes left? And then in overtime, the Eagles called three pass plays, each successive one more slow-developing than the next, which resulted in two sacks (for minus-21 yards) and an incompletion. The field-position loss contributed to the defeat, as the fatigued defense that did its job for three-plus quarters couldn’t hold the Lions any longer.

REDSKINS

What we learned: Robert Griffin III has the magic touch — and he can avoid a hit, too. Whether it was sliding, throwing the ball away, running out of bounds or simply running past Vikings defenders, Griffin dominated the game. He consistently flustered the Vikings and helped the Redskins win 38-26 in a statement victory against a team that had not allowed more than 23 points this season. The Redskins had appeared on the verge of getting a victory such as this, and Sunday they posted it. That’s a big development. This is a team with a lot to prove, and Sunday’s victory was a total team effort in all three phases. There was Niles Paul’s big hit on punt coverage and PK Kai Forbath’s successful debut on special teams, some great defensive contributions from unexpected sources on defense (namely Lorenzo Alexander and his four QB hits) and, of course, Griffin on offense.

What’s in store next: A suddenly very meaningful game is coming against the Giants, who claimed their stake as one of the NFL’s best teams (again) following their huge victory in San Francisco. The Redskins are a few notches behind the Giants, although only a game back at 3-3, and they did have the champs’ number a year ago, picking off Eli Manning four times in two victories. Can they repeat that success? They’ll have to do so with less talented personnel on defense considering all the injuries the Redskins have suffered, but credit must be given to coordinator Jim Haslett for bringing his group — especially the secondary — together in the past few weeks. Pressure predicated their success Sunday in rattling Vikings QB Christian Ponder for most of the first three quarters, but the DBs held their water quite well most of the game. S Madieu Williams’ pick-six against his old team was sweet redemption for him.

What the heck? Why didn’t Alexander get more time prior to Sunday? Truthfully, he’s best as a backup, and Alexander’s versatility and special-teams prowess are what make him such a terrific glue guy. But with Chris Wilson mostly struggling to help replace injured Brian Orakpo, the coaches believed they had no choice but to turn to Alexander. It turned out to be a terrific move. Alexander stepped in and stepped up with 1½ sacks and those four hits on Ponder, and he fell on a fumble that was forced by Perry Riley, who was allowed to rush the passer with Alexander on the inside. Alexander’s versatility (he also has played D-tackle in the past) has made him a great sub, and Sunday’s performance, which included several effective rushes, earned him a well-deserved game ball.

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