Updated 10:00 a.m. ET on Tuesday, Nov. 27
For now, the NFC East is a two-horse race, and the Giants did themselves a big favor by trouncing the Packers and maintaining a two-game divisional lead in advance of their game next week with the Redskins. Here's a wrap-up of the Week 12 action in the East:
What we learned: This team is talented, but also fragile and inconsistent. It seems that there is a terrific individual effort every week — on Thanksgiving, it was Dez Bryant who had a monster game — but the Cowboys often come up a few plays short of a complete team game. They fell to 5-6 with the loss to the Redskins, who share that record now but have the greater momentum for the postseason. Blame slow starts for the Cowboys’ problems. In their six losses, they allowed first-half double-digit deficits in four of them, including a 28-3 second-quarter hole against the Redskins. And much like the home loss to the Giants last month, the Cowboys fought hard to come back but couldn’t finish the operation.
What's in store next: Three of the next four are at home, including this Sunday night’s game against the Eagles, who still might be without QB Michael Vick and RB LeSean McCoy. Really, the Cowboys at this point pretty much have to consider every game a must-win. There are only two left against the NFC East, but that ship probably has sailed. Three of the final five are conference games, and the Cowboys must separate themselves from the seven teams at 5-6 or better who are battling for the two wild-card spots.
What the heck? It has been a brutal season for injuries, and they struck again in the Week 12 loss. ILB Bruce Carter, who had stepped up amid the loss of Sean Lee, reportedly will be out for the season with a dislocated elbow. Carter had been making the defensive calls in Lee’s place and was playing at a very high level. The Cowboys now are down to Dan Connor, Ernie Sims and Alex Albright and are expected to sign Brady Poppinga, who started 12 games for the Rams last season. Injuries this season have targeted certain positions, including the offensive line, running back and the secondary.
What we learned: On their best day, the Giants can beat anyone. Sunday was that kind of day as the Giants jumped on the Packers early and never relented. It was a two-pronged attack, as the Giants’ skill-position players roasted the Green Bay defenders and the pass rush picked apart a shorthanded offensive line. Eli Manning responded from a poor November to put together his finest performance in some time, hitting three different receivers for touchdowns. RB Ahmad Bradshaw also showed that his practicing last week was no fluke; he took a screen pass 59 yards on the opening drive and had more than 100 all-purpose yards in the first 20 minutes of the game. A week of rest on bye served the Giants quite well, it appears.
What's in store next: In the 38-10 statement-serving victory, the Giants also accomplished some business: keeping the Redskins at arm’s length for now. The teams will meet Monday night in Washington in what suddenly is a fascinating battle. They met back in Week Seven, a 27-23 barnburner that ended with an offensive flurry capped with Manning hitting Victor Cruz on a 77-yard touchdown pass in which he just ran past the defense. The problem: Robert Griffin III was also fantastic with 258 yards passing and 89 rushing. The Redskins might have stolen a win but were undone by four turnovers.
What the heck? Where in the world has this performance been all season? Did the bye week provide that much recharging? The Giants now have beaten the Packers and 49ers, two of the best teams in the NFL, by a combined 51 points. They also have lost to the Eagles and Cowboys, division opponents, sure, but subpar teams nonetheless. They also have staked bad teams such as the Browns to double-digits leads and later let the Bengals walk all over them. The Giants are hard to figure out, though we have learned in recent seasons that their finest performances often are more telling than their throwaway games. But the hesitation to call them great remains.
What we learned: The Redskins finally can start talking playoffs again. It’s going to be a haul, getting headlong into the race, and the 3-6 hole they put themselves into will make it tough. But Robert Griffin III gives them a chance, and he’s the rare rookie who can help the team compensate for weaknesses elsewhere. The confidence level of this team has been high much of the season, but it’s now in focus. The return of WR Pierre Garcon adds a much-needed dimension to the offense, and the defense has learned (for the most part) how to compensate without its missing parts.
What's in store next: The Giants remain two games up in the division, and the Redskins can’t catch them in next week’s massive battle in D.C. with a win. But they certainly can put the heat on the Giants with a win, splitting the season series and cutting the NFC East lead to one game with four to play. If the Giants win, the division is pretty much wrapped up (as far as the Redskins would be concerned) and the wild-card battle might be too much of a stretch. The Redskins actually did a fairly decent job containing Eli Manning last time and will need four quarters of solid defense to win the rematch.
What the heck? Are the Redskins capable of four quarters of great defense? Thanksgiving was a pretty good illustration of what they are capable of these days: spurts of excellent play on that side of the ball sandwiched around bouts of head-scratching ineffectiveness. In the first half against the Cowboys, the Redskins were terrific in terms of keeping the heat on Tony Romo and forcing him to check down to lesser options. They also forced turnovers for the second week in a row; that’s six now in two games, which is great. That’s a big part of the story of how the Redskins built a 28-3 lead in the second quarter. But the fact that Dallas almost came back is stunning, and the late-game breakdowns were inexcusable. Bad tackling, poor coverage and misplayed assignments all were culprits. That has happened before (the Week One Saints game, up 33-17 in the fourth, comes to mind; so does the Bucs game, up 21-6 well into the third) where leads have evaporated. And those are just the victories — we won’t get into the games in which the defense has failed and the Redskins have lost.