by Justin Henry
If the 49ers defeat the Giants on Sunday, the NFC West will be 4-0 for the year against the NFC East.
But how can this be? ESPN rarely talks about the West outside of some occasional 49ers chatter, or Seattle’s involvement in the death of the replacement officials.
Instead, the “Worldwide Leader” presents stories about Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, RG3, Michael Vick, and Eli Manning, so shouldn’t the NFC East be superior? I mean, the better teams should get more coverage, right?
Nah, that’s just crazy talk. But be sure to let ESPN know if Tebow’s traded to the Rams or Cardinals this off-season. Then we’ll talk.
Until that happens, let’s look at the NFC East in Week 6, including the NFC Championship rematch, continued rough patches for Tony Romo, an opportunity for the Eagles to finally dominate, and RG3’s first game post-injury.
1. NFC Championship Rematch Highlights Sunday’s Slate
The first overtime game with the “new rules.” Kyle Williams’ special teams blunders. Vernon Davis’ platform TD celebration. Eli Manning throwing 58 times on one of the NFL’s greatest defenses.
9 months after that epic ‘Battle By the Bay” on January 22, 2012, San Francisco will attempt to get their revenge on a New York Giants team that undercut their near-golden turnaround under coach Jim Harbaugh.
The Giants return to San Fran in an effort to maintain their share of the NFC East lead, or perhaps take it over (more on that later), while the 49ers find themselves in a suddenly competitive division, with every team currently holding a winning record.
In a trench war, the 49ers would have the advantage. Frank Gore and company are powering the league-leading rushing attack with 6.08 YPA on the ground. Gore and fellow back Kendall Hunter are each averaging 5.41 YPA (117 carries, 633 yards, 5 TD combined), and backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick adds 10.6 YPA, plus 2 touchdowns, on his 10 design scrambles.
On the opposite side of the ball, the Giants allow 4.53 YPA rushing on defense, eighth worst in the league. Even the Eagles, who only run the ball on days that end in “G”, put up 191 yards on the ground against them.
The three teams that the Giants have beaten this year rank in the middle tier in Defensive Passer Rating: Tampa Bay (fifteenth, 87.50), Cleveland (seventeenth, 89.03), and Carolina (nineteenth, 92.20). Given that the Giants team passer rating on offense is 95.53, those results are of little mystery.
As for their 2 losses, New York came off flat against the Cowboys, who are twenty-first in DPR (95.39), and found themselves gasping for air in the first half against Philadelphia (fourth best DPR at 67.08)
How will the Giants fare against San Francisco’s defense, which has the tenth best DPR at 76.16?
The Giants will most assuredly score more than the 3 combined points that the Jets and Bills have amounted against the 49ers over the last couple weeks, but whether they can avoid giving up 34 and 45 points (New York gave up 34 to Tampa Bay and 27 to Cleveland) remains a major issue.
2. All Eyes on Romo in Baltimore
For all of the chatter and insinuation that Tony Romo, since his 2006 inception, is nothing more than a fluke, or a choke artist, or both, those critics may find more ammo after Sunday’s game against Baltimore.
Dallas’ polarizing quarterback is coming off one of the worst statistical performances of his career; a five-interception sandblasting at the hands of Chicago in Week 4.
Romo has already thrown 8 interceptions total, 7 of them in the last 3 games. In that same stretch, he’s thrown just 2 of his 5 touchdown passes.
Romo’s QB rating over the last 3 games (1-2 record) is 66.3.
This jives nicely with Baltimore’s DPR of 74.56, the eighth best in the NFL. Teams have only scored twice through the air on the Ravens this season, with 6 interceptions to counter. None of those passing TDs have come in the last 2 games, but 3 of those picks have.
Based on recent trends, you’d think Baltimore would wreak havoc and end many a Dallas drive via turnover and end the Cowboys’ day as Chicago did. But it’s not that cut and dry.
In 9 regular season games in 2011, Baltimore held opponents to under 300 total yards, but have yet to do so this season. The Eagles, Patriots, and Browns all managed 300 yards passing on them, and they gave up 214 rushing yards to Kansas City (140 alone to Jamaal Charles).
Terrell Suggs’ injury plays into the defense needing to bend more to make drive-ending plays, and Ray Lewis’ weight loss is believed to tie into his less-than-optimum effectiveness.
Add to this the fact that Baltimore ranks only sixteenth in defensive third down percentage, and eighteenth in sack/INT percentage, and it’s clear that this isn’t the Ravens defense of old.
While the expectation seems to be another Romo meltdown, with plenty of spotlight for a clipboard-wielding Kyle Orton on the sidelines, smart play and offensive assertiveness could lead to the Cowboys scoring the upset.
3. Eagles Seek Traction against Passive Lions
In 17 red zone appearances this season, the Eagles have only scored 7 touchdowns and 5 field goals, which leaves about a 29 percent turnover rate. Michael Vick is responsible for 4 of those giveaways, with 1 interception and 3 lost fumbles.
The Vick-led Eagles offense of 2010 was hell on defenses not used to the shifty speed brought on by the likes of Vick, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson. There was a confidence in their hiccup-quick assault, and the variety seen in their offense led them to an 8-3 record with Vick under center.
But since the “Dream Team” collapsed in 2011, and Vick’s battled recurring numerous rib injuries, that spark has fizzled.
Whether its Vick’s confidence, or the unsettled offensive line isn’t picking up the rush adequately, Philadelphia’s offense is lacking its bite. Their 3 wins this season, as has been pointed out, are by a total of 4 points, and they all needed Vick to be perfect on fourth quarter drives.
If it’s confidence that Philadelphia, Vick in particular, needs heading into their bye, Detroit provides a great opportunity for just that.
The Lions have the sixth worst passer rating on defense, 90.65. Opponents are completing 66.1 percent of their passes against them, and they’ve yet to intercept a single pass.
The only true mismatch in the Lions favor is in the trench war. Their five primary defensive linemen (Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams, Cliff Avril, and Nick Fairley) have combined for 9.0 sacks in their first four games, and can be liberally used on an inconsistent line to pressure Vick into making mistakes.
4. Redskins, Vikings Battle in Run-Based Struggle
Good thing that RG3’s brain wasn’t more scrambled after that Sean Weatherspoon hit. Robert Griffin III is responsible for over 70 percent of Washington’s offense this year, whether it’s via his arm or his feet. Kirk Cousins’ work as the understudy doesn’t quite have the same sizzle, although that was merely a small look.
Those 732 combined rushing yards between Griffin and Alfred Morris (146.4 YPG between them) are impressive, but they’ll never every one of those yards to topple the Vikings.
The Vikings have only allowed two rushers to top 50 yards this year: Maurice Jones-Drew (77) and Frank Gore (63). Chris Johnson, once feared for his elusiveness in his deer-like gallops, has been disappointing this year, and Minnesota easily held him to 24 yards on 15 carries.
Then again, Tampa Bay holds the third best run defense in the league with 3.21 YPA, and the Griffin/Morris double threat totaled 199 yards and 2 rushing touchdowns on 29 carries (6.86 YPA) on them.
Minnesota’s 3.2 YPA allowed provides a similar challenge, but unlike Tampa Bay, their offense has proven much more potent.
The Vikings worst rushing output of the season was a ‘mere’ 95 yards in a loss to the Colts, and they average 133.2 YPG, thanks to a healthier-than-expected Adrian Peterson (4.4 YPA, 84 YPG), as well as heavy doses of Toby Gerhart and wide receiver Percy Harvin.
Washington’s 3.95 YPA on defense is nothing to be ashamed of, and they can certainly hem Peterson and company in to a great degree.
In the end, it’s going to come down to air attack, provided that it’s a close game. The Redskins have a lousy pass defense, giving up 13 touchdowns through the air, and allowing 338.8 YPG.
Christian Ponder himself only averages 216.4 YPG, but his 69 percent completion percentage means he’ll be confident against a Redskins pass defense that hasn’t been up to snuff.
5. Mini Power Rankings
1. Philadelphia (3-2)
Haven’t had a sack in consecutive weeks for the third time in the Reid Era (last time was Nov-Dec 2008), and allowed a season-high 136 rushing yards on Sunday. At least the INTs have stopped….for now.
2. New York (3-2)
After the 49ers game, New York plays 2 straight division games: vs. Washington, and then at Dallas. So far this season, the Giants are 0-2 in the NFC East, and could use some tiebreaker fodder.
3. Dallas (2-2)
DeMarco Murray is on pace for 948 yards and 4 touchdowns for the season. Dallas has only had one lone 1000 yard rusher since Emmitt Smith in 2001: Julius Jones in 2006 (1084)
4. Washington (2-3)
Over their last 10 games, which dates back to December 2011, opponents have topped 30 points 7 times, and have only been held below 20 once (the Giants last season, a shocking 10 points).