I hate to throw a wet blanket over the sudden fire of optimism raging among Cowboys fans, but here goes. Let the hate mail begin.
I agree it was absolutely fantastic watching the Giants lose to the Redskins on national TV this last Monday night after pretty much every single NFL “expert” had already conceded the NFC East title if not another Super Bowl appearance to the Giants. Better yet was the shot of Eli Manning on the sideline as the seconds were clicking down trying to count how much time was left versus how many times the Redskins had to snap the ball at the end. I think he used all his fingers and his toes before appearing to just give up. If there is to be a turning point this season, the Redskins beating the Giants to carve a full game off of their two-game lead was likely it. The Cowboys chances of catching the Giants with a full four games remaining just got markedly better. BUT – and there’s always a but – Lets’ not lose sight of what has happened the last 3 weeks to get us to this position.
The Cowboys escaped with an overtime win against the Browns – looking very ragged doing it. Then, they turned in an abysmal first half against the Redskins on Thanksgiving Day and never fully recovered. Sunday night, they had finally what looked like a somewhat decisive win against the hapless Eagles before giving up a 98-yard punt return with 40 seconds remaining to nearly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and leaving every Cowboy fan a little queasy despite the victory.
The Redskins on the other hand – already written off by everyone including their coach in one post-game press conference – have quietly (as quietly as possible with the new football “god” RGIII on the roster) put together 3 straight division wins. They destroyed the Eagles 31-6 at home, beat the Cowboys on the road, and then squeeked out the win at home against the Giants Monday night. Three division wins is impressive enough – three in a row makes you stand up and take notice. The same team that helped the Cowboys Monday night may just be the team that keeps us home for the playoffs. Momentum is certainly more on their side than anyone else’s in the division at this point.
Yes, Virginia, I think we have quite a four-game stretch coming in the NFC East. And, there is alot of football left to be played by every team still in the hunt, but I would bet that neither of the wild card teams in the NFC comes out of the NFC East. So, win the division or start planning your off season. Let’s look at the path each of the contenders have the rest of the way.
Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the Giants still own a one-game lead and therefore control their own destiny. Win out, and they win the division no matter what the Redskins and Cowboys do. Their remaining games are:
1. Saints at home – the Saints are not a playoff team this year, so on paper at least, this should be a win for the G-men
2. At Atlanta – the Falcons are winning somewhat ugly, but winning. Tough game for the Giants, but most thought they would have trouble on the road against the 49ers and they rolled.
3. At Baltimore – another tough place to play a likely playoff team. The Ravens lead the all-time series with the Giants 3-1 and the Giants have never won at Baltimore.
4. Philadelphia at home – unless the division is already clinched and the Giants are resting players, this one has very little chance of being anything but a win for New York.
Despite significant injuries on defense like the Cowboys (Carriker and Orakpo to name just two), RGIII has the Redskins playing above their pay grade by most expert’s measures. And, they have by far the easier path forward:
1. Baltimore at home – another difficult game but certainly winnable at home.
2. At Cleveland – The Browns have a horrible record but have made most other teams earn the ‘W’. The ‘Skins will have to continue to play well and are .500 on the road so far, so this should be a win.
3. At Philadelphia – At Lincoln Financial Field, this can always be a tough game, but the Eagles are already playing for next year. Redskins will win this one easily.
4. Cowboys at home - A trip to the playoffs could be on the line for this one if the Giants stumble. Their chances are better at home although their home record is the same as their road record right now (3-3).
Somehow the Cowboys have stumbled and bumbled their way to .500 (6-6). But, their play has not inspired any confidence – injuries, penalties, mistakes abound. Teams that have underperformed and gotten on a roll in recent past seasons started playing better than we have so far. We’re getting some key players back – DeMarco Murray clearly makes a difference in the running game. We pretty much have to play well enough to make that last game at Washington mean something at the end of the year. If we stumble before then, our destiny won’t be in our own hands.
1. At Cincinnati – The Bengals will be tough at home. This top 10 defense is full of former Cowboys playing well - Adam ‘Pac Man’ Jones and Terrence Newman to name a couple, not to mention DC Mike Zimmer – and they would love nothing more than to spoil the Cowboys season. They will have their hands full with a surging Dez Bryant (last 3 games he has 26 receptions for 288 yards and 5 touchdowns).
2. Pittsburgh – at home, which has proven to be not much of a home field advantage (The Cowboys are 16-14 all time at the new digs) and this team is definitely different without Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. But, there is talk of Ben being back and the Steeler defense is always tough. No cake walk here although I like their chances if Big Ben doesn’t suit up.
3. New Orleans – the Saints will likely be eliminated completely from the playoff picture and their defense has been pretty bad this year. But, any team that still has Drew Brees can be dangerous. It’s unclear whether or not the Cowboys will match up well with the Saints. Not a sure thing by any means.
4. At Washington – let’s hope this game still means something. If the Giants don’t trip, then it could just be a matter of playing for draft position. If RGIII stays hot, this could be another long day for the Cowboys and the start of another disappointing off season. On the flip side, I’m not sure it is truly a “win” if Garrett gets into the playoffs only to lose in the first round. That would likely guarantee Garrett another couple of robotic years and a lower draft pick. Not much of a moral victory.
Still a lot of football to be played. I’m happy the Cowboys are still at least in the conversation, but the suddenly streaking Redskins have me concerned that it is the Giants and the Cowboys who could be on the outside looking in when all is said and done. Let’s hope I’m wrong. Go Cowboys!