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NFC East Spin cycle: Clean sweep as race thickens

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By Eric Edholm

The NFC East remains a three-way race, and a compelling one, with all four teams winning Sunday. The Eagles’ victory in Tampa might not have been more than a feel-good game in a lost season, but the emotional Cowboys, the inspired Redskins and determined Giants all moved forward with victories that meant different things Sunday.

COWBOYS

What we learned: You can count this team out if you want, and the Cowboys certainly don’t look pretty doing much, but they can find ways to overcome. Amid the death of practice-squad LB Jerry Brown in an alcohol-related traffic accident that involved NT Josh Brent, who spent the game in a Dallas jail, the Cowboys found a way to fight through a nine-point deficit on the road against a team that had won four consecutive games in a stirring 20-19 victory. It was one of the coaching high points of Jason Garrett, who guided his team through tragedy and appeared less wooden and more human after the victory. On top of that, Tony Romo once again was hot in the fourth quarter, completing 11-of-15 passes for 128 yards and a 27-yard TD pass to Dez Bryant.

What’s in store next: It’s a home date, the first of two in a row in Dallas, against the Steelers, their longtime rival from the 1970s. But nostalgia will be put aside. Both teams will be desperate for a victory. The Steelers are more in the wild-card hunt, trailing the Ravens by two games in the AFC North, but the irony is that the Cowboys might have an easier time winning the NFC East, only a game back of the Giants and tied with the Redskins, than getting a wild-card spot. In Romo and the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, the game features two of the more unorthodox quarterbacks in terms of keeping plays alive. Of course, both have been getting killed behind makeshift offensive lines this season.

What the heck? Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s unit came up with a solid effort in holding the Bengals to 135 total yards and six points in the second half. But Ryan was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct early in the third quarter, a rare flag to be called on an assistant coach. As Andy Dalton scrambled out of bounds for a one-yard loss (the sack was credited to Anthony Spencer), the coaches, including Ryan, screamed for a hold on ORT Andre Smith. Ryan and Smith then got into it, and Ryan was so apoplectic he missed making a defensive call on the next snap. "One of their players came over and kind of hollered at our sidelines and Rob hollered back,” Garrett said. “We can’t do that. We have to keep our emotions in check. That was the scenario there about a potential call and their players reaction to us and Rob had a reaction. That felt like it was justified to call that penalty there."

GIANTS

What we learned: The Giants are at least in the discussion for best team in the NFC. With the Falcons losing to Carolina and the 49ers winning in mild fashion (in some respects) over the Dolphins, the Giants’ 52-27 victory over the Saints — a team that had clobbered them three consecutive times — put the rest of the conference on notice. This is typically the time of year when the Giants find their mojo, as they did last season (a bit later) to win their second title in five years. Can the Giants do it again? The secondary once more was a mess, but they dominated the Saints otherwise.

What’s in store next: It’s two straight on the road against teams with 20 combined victories (Atlanta, Baltimore), although both lost on the road Sunday. First up: The Falcons in Atlanta. The team that lost to the Giants in the playoff opener last season has been atop the NFC standings from Jump Street, but there suddenly are questions about just how good they are. Throw in the fact that the Falcons have won only one game at home this season by more than one score (a 23-13 victory over the Saints in Week 13), and you figure the Giants have an excellent chance to win. With the Redskins and Cowboys both winning in Week 14, Tom Coughlin’s prediction that the Giants must finish the season with four victories is looking more and more sage by the day.

What the heck? David Wilson became the first NFL player in history with at least 200 kickoff return yards and 100 rushing yards in the same game, scoring three touchdowns (two rushing, one returning) in the blowout. So why hasn’t Coughlin found a more prominent place for the first-round pick? First, the excuse was fumbling; then, Wilson’s lack of pass-blocking prowess became the issue that kept him glued to the bench. Either way, with Ahmad Bradshaw’s spate of injuries and Andre Brown on I.R. until at least the start of the playoffs, Wilson will be a huge figure down the stretch. Much like Bradshaw, who broke out late in his rookie season, Wilson has a chance to be a hero in December and January.

EAGLES

What we learned: It has been a brutal season after a 3-1 start, but a rookie provided some relief Sunday. QB Nick Foles, who frankly looked pretty bad in his first two extended appearances this season, has bounced back with two good ones, including Sunday’s dramatic victory over the playoff-hunting Buccaneers in Tampa. Foles led two scoring drives in the final 7:21 to overcome a two-score deficit and hit Jeremy Maclin with the game-winning TD pass as time expired. Foles’ first victory included 381 passing yards (the most ever by an Eagles rookie) and several clutch throws. He was sacked six times but picked himself up off the turf each time and seemed to deliver clutch throws at every turn.

What’s in store next: There’s little rest or celebration for the Eagles and their first victory since September. They draw an angry Bengals team, which had won four in a row prior to their home loss to the Cowboys that complicated their playoff hopes. The Thursday-night game against the Bengals will give Foles another chance to solidify his chances of being the Eagles’ starter, no matter who the coach is next season. Although Andy Reid’s days look numbered in Philadelphia, his team delivered a thrill Sunday after which Reid showed some rare emotion on the sideline, more than Reid has shown in most of his 130 regular-season victories with the team.

What the heck? Was firing DL coach Jim Washburn all it took for the Eagles’ defensive line to wake up? The wide-9 alignment was all but scrapped for the game against the Bucs, and the Eagles did a good job controlling the action up front with a sack each by DTs Cullen Jenkins and Fletcher Cox, six tackles for loss and five QB hits on Josh Freeman. It held down the Bucs’ high-powered passing game (only three receptions longer than 19 yards) and though RB Doug Martin got loose for 123 rushing yards, the Bucs opened the game with eight straight punts. It was a shocking turnaround defensively for the Eagles, who had been putrid since the firing of coordinator Juan Castillo and the promotion of Todd Bowles.

REDSKINS

What we learned: There is something special going on in D.C. Ever since Mike Shanahan’s “evaluation” for next season comment, the Redskins have ripped off four straight victories, the first time the team has been above .500 this late in the season since 2008. And though Robert Griffin III again had some Superman moments, it was backup QB Kirk Cousins who saved the day. Following an awful-looking knee injury to Griffin, who tried to gut through it but couldn’t, Cousins came on to draw a pass-interference call, completed both of his pass attempts for 26 yards and a TD pass with 29 seconds remaining and his two-point-conversion QB draw tied it and sent the game to OT. There, a 64-yard Richard Crawford punt return set up the game-winning field goal from Kai Forbath, who has been a godsend, and the Redskins kept pace with the Giants and Cowboys in a wild finish to the NFC East title chase.

What’s in store next: We’ll see if Griffin, whose initial MRI results indicated no ACL tear, can go against the Browns in Cleveland on Sunday. If not, Cousins will be ready to go, although the 5-8 Browns suddenly are playing some inspired ball (especially on defense) in winning three in a row. Cousins was unable to beat the Falcons in his previous relief appearance for Griffin, but he now has looked relatively poised in two appearances in the fourth quarter and overtime. That will serve him well, if need be, as the former Michigan State QB travels back to Big Ten country.

What the heck? Can we go back to April for a moment and chide the silly folks who spewed rage at the Redskins’ drafting of Cousins in Round Four? It was silly, pointless and misguided. And yes, we wrote this at the time, thank you very much. The argument at the time was that it placed unneeded pressure on Griffin from a fellow rookie. Uh, excuse me? Care to revise your statement? The unflappable Griffin doesn’t appear too, um, concerned about what Cousins is doing — except in that the two are exceptionally close and often will review the game tape and game plans together throughout the week. That’s likely one reason why Cousins was able to do what he did Sunday: He was very prepared. The pundits wondered what would happen if Cousins came in and played well. They found out Sunday what would happen. The Redskins remain in the thick of the playoff race and Griffin remains as popular, nay, beloved as ever.

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