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NFC East Spin cycle: Cruz-Manning again the difference

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Posted Oct. 22, 2012 @ 12:58 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

With the Eagles on bye, the Giants kept their ascension in the division by fending off the Redskins in a barn burner and the Cowboys stayed alive with a win in Carolina. The Giants and Cowboys will meet next week in Dallas that looms as a critical game for the home team.

COWBOYS

What we learned: It wasn’t pretty, but the Cowboys leveled off their record at 3-3 with a 19-14 victory at Carolina. They lost a fumble, struggled to run the ball without DeMarco Murray, committed six more penalties and were 0-for-3 in red-zone execution (three field goals), but the Cowboys did just enough to win as Tony Romo played a fairly clean game. The defense came up with an interception of Cam Newton in the endzone, forced three straight punts to start the second half and came away with a pair of big stops in the game’s final three-plus minutes to seal the victory. All three of the Cowboys’ wins have been by one score, and each included a big play by the “D” when it mattered most.

What’s in store next: Rest will be needed this week, as Murray’s status remains in doubt for the Week Eight contest against the Giants in Dallas. The Cowboys hope to have all hands on deck for what appears to be a crucial game for their season, but there is serious concern about the health of C Phil Costa, who suffered what appeared to be a bad ankle injury against the Panthers. ILB Sean Lee (right big toe) also left and didn’t return; the extent of his injury is not known. If Costa is out, the Cowboys will turn back to Ryan Cook, which is a drop-off, although Cook played well in the season opener in relief of Costa. Losing Lee and not having Murray would be tough blows. Both were monsters in the Week One victory at MetLife Stadium.

What the heck? Jason Garrett appeared to be coaching without a lot of confidence at game’s end, a week after the game mismanagement in the loss to the Ravens. Trailing by a point with 3:43 left at the Carolina 15-yard line, the Cowboys had a chance to go up six on the Panthers. Sure, it was 3rd-and-9, but Garrett called for a no-chance draw to Phillip Tanner and settled for a field goal, saying after the game it was the right call against the Panthers dropping eight in coverage. Twice the Panthers had the ball after that with a chance to win the game. The fact that they failed is immaterial. Garrett seemed to either not trust Romo in that situation or not trust his own instincts as a coach and play-caller. Either way, it’s a bad sign as the Cowboys cling to contention in the division race.

GIANTS

What we learned: The Giants are in the discussion for being the best team in the NFL (again) after their 27-23 victory over the Redskins. Eli Manning and Victor Cruz overcame some missed connections earlier in the game to hook up for a 77-yard score that the Redskins couldn’t rebound from in what was a back-and-forth game. The Giants forced four turnovers, sacked Robert Griffin III three times and made the key stop at game’s end. At 5-2, the Giants lead the NFC East by more than a game and they continue to find new ways to win game, even if the names — Manning and Cruz — are often the same.

What’s in store next: The Giants head to Dallas to kick off a tough four-game stretch — at Cowboys, vs. Steelers, at Bengals, vs. Packers — before they have to face Griffin and the Redskins again. This stretch, starting with Sunday’s victory, looms large. Yes, the team survived a four-game losing streak in this range a year ago, but slumping that badly twice and expecting to be a title contender would be unlikely. The Cowboys fought back to 3-3 but are vulnerable, even at home, where they were blown out by the Bears on a national stage. This one is a Sunday afternoon game matching the first- and second-place teams in the NFC East, with the Giants looking to avenge their season-opening loss at the hands of the Cowboys at MetLife Stadium.

What the heck? Before the Giants head to Dallas, they will focus on fixing their run defense. It was fairly putrid, though the Cowboys’ Tony Romo isn’t as dynamic a running threat as Griffin. The Redskins threw a lot of option plays at them, but the Giants just played bad assignment football. They overran plays, took bad angles and pursued and tackled poorly. It resulted in 248 yards on the ground for Washington. It’s one thing for Griffin to rip off a 28-yard run and finish with 89 on the game (on nine carries), it’s quite another for Alfred Morris to gash the Giants for 120 yards, including a long of 30 and many coming on basic power plays, and for FB Darrel Young (he of the 17 career carries) to go for 16 yards on one attempt. Most of the damage came in the first half, and the Giants did force a key Morris fumble to turn the tide in the second half. But that kind of 60-minute effort won’t cut it going forward, especially against Murray (who broke their backs with a 48-yard run in Week One), if he returns from injury.

EAGLES

On bye

REDSKINS

What we learned: This team always has a chance with Robert Griffin III. He was upstaged by Eli Manning and the Giants in Week Seven, falling one score short in a 27-23 loss. But the rookie QB once again had his Redskins in a position to win the game Sunday on a big stage. He played well but also fumbled late and was picked off earlier, two of the four turnovers the Redskins lost in the game. Like Griffin, Alfred Morris was great but also lost a key fumble. They also lost TE Fred Davis to a season-ending Achilles injury, which is a key blow. And though the defense hung tough most of the afternoon, intercepting Eli Manning twice, a blown coverage on Victor Cruz’s 77-yard TD catch was the parting shot in the loss.

What’s in store next: The Redskins will bring their dangerous offense to Pittsburgh for a rare meeting with the Steelers in what should be a great stage for Griffin and Co. If you think their offense could suffer without Davis and perhaps with WR Pierre Garcon on the mend, consider this: They rolled up 480 yards (248 rushing) on the world champs Sunday and would have topped the 500-mark and scored more than 23 points had it not been for the sloppy turnovers. The Giants were so rattled by Griffin that back-to-back plays to the fullback were successful. The big story this week will be the health of LB London Fletcher, who did not return after suffering a hamstring injury. Fletcher has started 231 consecutive games and could miss a game for the first time in his NFL career, which began in 1998. Amazing.

What the heck? The Cruz TD was a failure on multiple fronts. Maybe some of it falls on coordinator Jim Haslett for not bringing pressure or playing the corners up in the situation. Even without a blitz, the Redskins hit Manning on the throw, so maybe sending one more defender disrupts that play. You can understand why Haslett did it — so as to not get beat deep (ironically, of course). But you can’t watch the play and not say it was a breakdown in coverage. The Redskins had the inside-out coverage they wanted on the play, but S Madieu Williams was caught napping, perhaps because of the outside receiver running a sideline route (nice play design, by the way), which is more befitting of a first-down throw in the two-minute drill. CB Josh Wilson had inside technique on Cruz, and Williams bit on the short route. Bad call. Cruz ran right past Wilson’s man coverage and the (supposedly) tight safety help, taking the seam to go the distance. Maybe not the best call there, but certainly not Haslett's fault entirely. The players have to carry out their assignments, and Williams did not.

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