NFC East Spin cycle: Cowboys closing the game with Giants

Posted Nov. 12, 2012 @ 1:02 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

Should the Giants be concerned? They're now only 1.5 games up in the East after their second straight loss and the Cowboys' comeback win in Philly. The Eagles fell to 3-6 and Michael Vick was hurt, dropping them to a new level of desperation. The Redskins were on bye. Here's a look at what happened in the division in Week 10:

COWBOYS

What we learned: The Cowboys are in the race, sub.-500 or not. It was not a pretty victory in Philadelphia, but the result — coupled with the Giants’ road loss — is that the team finds itself in a battle for the division. Tony Romo and the offense had a solid outing, but it was really the defense and special teams that boosted the score, directly accounting for 21 of the 38 Dallas points with returns for touchdown (via a punt, interception and fumble). The Cowboys scored 21 points in a stretch of 2:36 in the third and fourth quarters to turn a seven-point deficit into a 14-point lead.

What’s in store next: A home stretch! After having only one game in Dallas since Oct. 1, the Cowboys return home for three straight vs. the Browns, Redskins and Eagles, combined record 8-19. The Cowboys could be facing three straight rookie quarterbacks in these games, with Brandon Weeden, Robert Griffin III and, after they knocked out Michael Vick with a concussion Sunday, Nick Foles. If the results vs. Foles (22-of-32 passing for 219 yards but also a pick-six and a fumble in his own endzone) are any indication, this could be a very good thing. This is the stretch that will determined whether the Cowboys contend for a postseason bid or not. At 4-5, they still need a lot of wins, probably three straight to keep the pressure on the Giants and remain in the NFC wild-card hunt, as well.

What the heck? For the fourth time this season, the Cowboys committed double-digit penalties in a game. On Sunday, the total was 13 for 75 yards, granting the Eagles six gift-wrapped first downs on a day their offense was struggling. The biggest offender was rookie CB Morris Claiborne, who was responsible for five flags of his own, believed to be tied for the most by a cornerback since 2001 (Fred Smoot had five in a game in 2005). Claiborne was called for two holding penalties and one pass interference, but also two offsides, which is inexcusable. His brutal game also included a TD catch allowed to Riley Cooper (only his third grab of the season), a blown coverage on Jeremy Maclin’s 44-yard TD catch and a hold on Cooper that wiped out an INT by Anthony Spencer.

GIANTS

What we learned: The Giants’ lead in the East has dwindled to a game and a half despite no other division team sitting above .500. With a second straight loss following four straight victories, the Giants fell to 6-4 and sounded some alarm bells in the process. It’s a formula the Giants have patented — hot, cold, hot at the right time — in their championship seasons, so a November swoon isn’t always something to fret over. But really, some ugly trends that have developed (a struggling passing game, spotty rushing and critical breakdowns on “D”) go back prior to the two losses.

What’s in store next: The bye comes at a good time, as this is a team that looks like it could use some recharging. Eli Manning reportedly has a “tired arm” that will earn some rest; his mechanics, and even footwork, have looked off the past few weeks. A defense that has been gashed in myriad ways will spend some time healing, but also looking at game tape to try to diagnose what’s been going wrong. Zero sacks Sunday and a handful of blown coverages in allowing four TD passes — inexcusable numbers for this group. After the bye, there is no rest, at least as things appear now. Every remaining game is either a division contest or against a team in the playoff hunt, three at home and three away.

What the heck? What’s up with Eli? Yes, it’s the second week in a row we’ve asked that in this very space. And yes, it was not that long ago — 2010 to be exact — that Manning was mired in a slump that lasted most of a season. But coming off a championship season and a strong start in 2012, we are just not accustomed to this. It has been three straight games without a TD pass now, although to be fair, Victor Cruz dropped an easy one, perhaps dreaming too early about salsa. Manning’s two INTs Sunday also led directly to 14 Bengals points, but also in his defense, the protection was lousy. After being sacked only seven times in eight games, Manning has gone down six times in the past two contests, including four Sunday. He was also hit four other times, and those two picks came on throws on which he was hit. “He was under duress a lot today,” head coach Tom Coughlin said. Dave Diehl started a second straight game and was bad again Sunday. His sack allowed near the end of the first half was a rally killer after the Giants had good field position at the Cincinnati 14.

EAGLES

What we learned: They might be toast. Andy Reid, Michael Vick … it was a bad day for both in the Eagles’ 38-23 loss to the Cowboys that dropped them to 3-6. That’s five straight losses now after a 3-1 start, almost — inconceivably — making last season’s “Dream Team” struggles pale in comparison. Vick was knocked out with a concussion in the second quarter, giving way to Nick Foles, who gave a brief spark but was responsible for two second-half turnovers that were returned for scores in the loss. Basically, the Eagles sucked more than the Cowboys did and that’s why they lost.

What’s in store next: Vick will go through the post-concussion process as the Eagles get ready for a road game against the Redskins, who were sitting on bye. Either way, it’s an interesting QB comparison — Vick vs. Robert Griffin III, a battle of last generation’s and this generation’s best scramblers, or Foles vs. RG3 in a tilt of rookies. If Foles starts, he’d be the sixth first-year QB to start this season in the NFL. He has a long way to go in terms of decision-making, if his debut is any indication. Fans roared when Foles hit Jeremy Maclin for a wide (and we mean wide) open TD before the half to briefly give the Eagles life, and he maintained the lead through most of the third quarter. But fourth-quarter mistakes behind a very leaky offensive line led to the Cowboys taking control.

What the heck? Lost in the Vick-Reid madness and the horrendous struggles of the defense, especially lately, have been the problems on special teams. Sunday was no exception. A week after having a brilliantly devised throwback return go awry in New Orleans that could have turned the tide, there were more problems with coordinator Bobby April’s units. The coverage group has not done well this season, and they failed to hem in Cowboys PR Dwayne Harris on the sideline as he ran 78 yards for a score with the benefit of an unimpeded convoy of blockers. Mat McBriar outkicked his coverage, and the Cowboys were ready for it. King Dunlap forgot he was on the FG unit and was not on the field in the second half for an Alex Henery attempt, causing the team to call timeout. Also, Henery missed a point-after attempt late after the Eagles cut it to a one-score game, and his onside-kick attempt was relatively feeble.