NFC East might be too good for itself

Mike Mreczko

For those of you who thought that the NFC East was certain to land three playoff teams this season, think again. While the division is definitely the tightest, and arguably the best, in football, that won’t necessarily translate into having the three of the top six teams in the conference come the end of December.

As we head into Week 3, the Giants, Cowboys and Eagles each stand at 1-1. Since 1990, about 40 percent of the teams who split their first two decisions reach the postseason. While Philly should be sitting atop the division this week, their fourth quarter meltdown in the home opener is a perfect example of the type of play we should expect from these teams this season. Just when Donovan McNabb, Andy Reid, the guys at Geno’s Steaks and just about everyone else who saw the game thought the Birds had it in the bag, Big Blue storms back quicker than you can say Osi Umenyiora.

We saw more than a shocking comeback at the Linc last week. We saw how the big-name coaches in this division got their reputations. Andy Reid rotated his defensive line like he was coaching the Flyers in order to keep fresh legs in pursuit of Eli Manning, which resulted in eight sacks, and Tom Coughlin countered by going to a no-huddle offense in the late drives to keep the Birds from being able to make their group subs. Bill Parcells is no slouch either, and while the game may have passed Joe Gibbs a little, he was at least smart enough to bring in Al Saunders as offensive coordinator, who formerly called the shots for the very potent Chiefs offense.

We saw that these clubs will go as their quarterbacks go. McNabb looked great early and was quiet late, whereas Eli Manning started a little slow but came on strong towards the end, leading the game-tying drive from his own 20-yard line in 51 seconds and the winning drive from his own 15. (Also see: Drew Bledsoe first causing, then quieting, a quarterback controversy in Dallas and the Cowboys resulting record.) We learn that games will be grueling, mistakes will be costly and easing up on any given play could be fatal.

While I do believe that one wild card spot will come from the East, the team who loses out on playing in January might very well have that chance taken away by another one of their divisional rivals. We all know how badly these teams beat each other up, no matter what the records say. Maybe you want to write off the Redskins already, but don’t think heading to Washington to play in front of 91,000 fans will be a cream puff game. You see what happens when you think a quarter at home will be easy, never mind a game. While the offense hasn’t clicked yet, Saunders was brought there for a reason, and they do have some weapons to work with, although Clinton Portis is still suffering from his shoulder injury. Who knows, if Mark Brunell doesn’t pick it up, maybe we could see Antwaan Randle-El throwing a few more deep balls.

Speaking of weapons, each team has quite a few. Manning will have plenty of talent to spread the ball to between Plaxico Burress, Jeremy Shockey and Amani Toomer, who can still play. That’s when Tiki Barber isn’t running for 100 yards a game and the defense isn’t bringing one of the best past rushing tandems in the game at you in Michael Strahan and Umenyiora. The Cowboys took the risk on T.O. (who is now out with a broken finger), adding to the downfield threat of Terry Glenn and Jason Whitten and complimenting the tandem of Julius Jones and Marion Barber. The Eagles’ backfield is healthy again with former Wildcat Brian Westbrook exploding to the outside like he does best. The late acquisition of Donte’ Stallworth gives McNabb a true number one wide receiver, and L.J. Smith could be a Pro Bowl candidate this year at tight end in just his second year as a starter.

If the opposition in the division doesn’t flick your switch, the schedule itself could cause the undoing of a playoff contender. Six matchups against division rivals won’t be games so much as battles. Add in the fact that the East plays against the NFC South this year, a division which includes the Carolina Panthers who were a Super Bowl pick of many pundits and gurus, the Atlanta Falcons who have dominated with their ground attack since realizing that Michael Vick is not a pocket passer (big surprise), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers whom you can bet Jon Gruden will shape up after their dismal 0-2 start in which they scored a combined three points and, last but not least, actually tied for first, the revitalized New Orleans Saints.

Sprinkle in games against the tough Jaguars and tougher Colts who haven’t missed a beat even without Edgerrin James and the only easy games these teams can count on are Tennessee and Houston. Fortunately for the Eagles, they also see the 49ers this weekend and Green Bay, later while the Giants are taking on the likes of Seattle and Chicago.

The Eagles learned their lesson last week, and every other team in the East better have been paying attention as well. There are no easy games. You need every win you can get. It will be a war of attrition, with the Eagles already missing Lito Sheppard and Jevon Kearse for significant time. The bottom line is while it may be the tightest and best division in football, the NFC East will also be the toughest, which might cost a very deserving and talented team a shot at the playoffs. (Fear not, Eagles fans. You are one of the teams I think has enough in the tank to make it.)