By Justin Henry
Cold, Hard Football Facts NFC East beat man
The NFC East takes center stage in Week 1, with the Dallas Cowboys visiting the New York Giants in the NFL's very first Wednesday night kickoff game.
Elsewhere this week, Robert Griffin III gets thrown into the fire, trying to match passes with prolific Drew Brees, as the Washington Redskins visit New Orleans, while the Philadelphia Eagles take their league-best pass rush of 2011 into Cleveland to try to terrorize 28-year-old rookie QB Brandon Weeden.
Here are five things you need to know about the NFC East in Week 1, plus bonus coverage about the importance of a strong start in the NFL's Glamour Divsion.
Also, don't miss my season wins over-under predictions for each NFC East team here.
1. History, Both Distant and Recent, Favors New York Giants in Week 1
After the nerve-ripping high notes of Gwen Stefani fade into the East Rutherford night on September 5 (if there is a God, this would be a permanent development), the world champion New York Giants will host the Dallas Cowboys at MetLife Stadium.
The main event of the NFL’s 10th annual pre-opening Sunday “Kickoff” on NBC is a curious rematch of NBC’s regular season finale from a year ago.
It was New Year’s Day that the Giants trounced Big D, 31-14, and claimed the NFC East title.
Four victories later, Eli Manning and company hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, while the Cowboys could only watch.
2. A Pair of Bitter Pills for Dallas in 2011
The Giants two most emphatic regular season wins came at Dallas’ expense in 2011.
On December 11, Jason Pierre-Paul collected both a safety, as well as the last-second field goal block, that sealed the Giants 37-34 win in Cowboys Stadium. The win tied the clubs at 7-6. Three weeks later, New York took the division with the aforementioned thrashing.
The combined stat-line of the two games favors the champions. Dallas’ mental errors included a combined 17 penalties for 93 yards (10 alone in the December 11 meltdown), whereas the Giants committed only 9 fouls, albeit for 83 yards (just 3 penalties/28 yards in the finale, however).
As one would expect, the Giants defensive line brought the bite for Big Blue. Tony Romo was sacked nine times over the two games (Six times in the finale for 38 yards), whereas Eli Manning was only dropped twice. Pierre-Paul collected three of the Giants’ nine sacks, matched up across left tackle Doug Free.
On top of these truths, the Giants’ offense, 13-for-29 on third down over both games (for 44.8%; a blight on Dallas’ pedestrian 39.7 percent prevention rate during the regular season), threw for 746 passing yards in both wins. On December 11, Hakeem Nicks pulled in eight catches for 163 yards, while Victor Cruz laid waste to Dallas in the clincher, with six grabs and 178 yards, including a 74 yard touchdown.
Dallas’ best receiver in those games was Laurent Robinson. Over the two games, Robinson hauled in eight catches, 198 yards, and three touchdowns. Sadly for the Cowboys, he won’t be able to aid them from his new home in Jacksonville.
3. A Grand Opening
You know how college football powerhouses usually crush some inferior school on opening weekend? Like this weekend, when Oklahoma State won an 84-0 laugher over some no-name school (Saginaw Valley Barber College?)
In the NFL, the defending champion may not get the equivalent of a WWE jobber served up to them, but victory is generally inevitable.
Going back to 2004, the first time a defending champion (New England) played on the Wednesday/Thursday night opener, the champs are 9-0. The defending NFL champs are 12-0 in Week 1 dating back to 2000, including a spectacular 8-2-2 against the spread, according to Spreadapedia, our powerful point-spread database for CHFF Insiders.
The average margin of victory, however, is a scant nine points.
The only matchup that produced a margin of victory over two touchdowns was in 2007, when Indianapolis stomped New Orleans’ guts out 41-10. A pair of games were even decided by a field goal (New England over Indy in 2004, 27-24; Pittsburgh over Tennessee in 2009, 13-10).
In fact, the last time a defending champion lost their first game of the season, you’d have to go back to the previous millennium. In 1999, the Denver Broncos, now-sans John Elway, lost to the Dolphins 38-21 on the first Monday Night Football game that season.
The Giants, who beat the Redskins on opening night 2008 16-7, and have beaten Dallas seven of the last nine times they’ve played, have history on their side
4. Eagles Looking For Encore against Browns
Who says the preseason doesn’t count?
The Philadelphia Eagles defense, which produced a league high 50 sacks a year ago (tied with Minnesota).
The 2011 Eagles also led the NFL in forcing Negative Pass Plays (11.44%), according to the CHFF Defensive Hog Index.
They continued their frenzied charge into the backfield with 19 sacks this preseason.
Over the four games, Philadelphia’s four back-up defensive ends, Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham, Phillip Hunt, and Darryl Tapp, accounted for 9.5 of those sacks.
Graham and Hunt alone had 3.5 apiece, which included a combined 2 sacks (1.5 from Graham, 0.5 from Hunt) against Cleveland on August 24.
A scheduling quirk led to Philadelphia and Cleveland meeting in the third preseason game, which is traditionally the outing where starters play into the third quarter.
Breaking from that pattern, starters like LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, and Nnamdi Asomugha were pulled away, so as to not show too much of Philly’s hand.
Michael Vick didn’t play in the game to rest his injured rib, but Cleveland rookie Brandon Weeden received plenty of action.
After leading a Cleveland drive to Philadelphia’s 2 yard line to begin the game, on 4/4 for 66 yards passing, Weeden fumbled on a Derek Landri sack, and the Browns never recovered.
Weeden, a 28-year-old former baseball prospect, replaces Colt McCoy this opening day. He takes over an offense that possessed the second-worst average in rushing yards per play in 2011 (3.7), which the Browns hope to remedy with No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson.
The Browns only completed 56.1 percent of their passes a year ago, and the Eagles were No. 1 in the league in ending passing plays with a sack or interception (11.44% success rate).
On the flip side, Cleveland’s 8 percent success rate in ending plays with a sack or pick was sixth worst in the league. The Browns also had the ninth worst defensive third down percentage, allowing the downs to be refreshed 41.3 percent of the time.
Cleveland made few defensive upgrades outside of end Frostee Rucker, and there’s still the real possibility that press corner Joe Haden will be suspended for flunking a drug test.
The Browns defense gave up 147.4 rushing yards per game last season, third worst in the league. They’re now tasked with stopping the scrambles of Michael Vick, and the dime-cutting of LeSean McCoy (fourth in the league with 1309 yards, league leader with 20 total touchdowns).
Unless Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson are pseudonyms for “John Elway” and “Terrell Davis”, there’s no way Philadelphia loses on opening day.
5. Redskins Pass Defense Thrown into the Fire
Drew Brees signed a five year, $100 million contract with New Orleans this past July. He’s coming off a year in which he threw 5,476 yards, an NFL record. Brees is also tasked with restoring dignity to a Saints franchise embroiled in controversy, stemming from the notorious “Bounty-Gate” scandal.
Add up those facts, and you begin to feel bad for the Redskins, who will be the first victim of the Saints’ Road to Redemption.
Look at the facts: Washington was 5-11 a year ago. The quarterbacks who beat them were Tony Romo (twice), Michael Vick (twice), Cam Newton, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Alex Smith, Matt Moore, Mark Sanchez, Tom Brady, and Christian Ponder/Joe Webb.
Average stat-line for those quarterbacks in those 11 losses: 19.6 completions on 30.4 attempts, 247.3 yards, 1.5 touchdowns, 0.64 interceptions. The average quarterback rating: 98.1
Drew Brees in thirteen regular season wins in 2011, per game averages: 29.0 completions on 39.9 attempts, 338.7 yards, 3.16 touchdowns, 0.69 interceptions.
The Redskins defensively can wreak havoc (41 sacks, 13 interceptions in 2011, ninth overall in the combined total), but they’re matched up with an offensive line that boasts three Pro Bowlers: Jermon Bushrod, Ben Grubbs (replacing the departed Carl Nicks), and the best guard in the game, Jahri Evans.
Sacks will come at a premium on Brees, who was only sacked once every 27.4 throws in 2011.
The Redskins only hope will be if Robert Griffin III can sustain drives, and avoid three-and-outs that would give Brees and the Saints offense plenty of time to work their magic.
With safety Tanard Jackson likely suspended for the season after a drug violation, Washington has to rely on a secondary consisting of the inconsistent DeAngelo Hall, Josh Wilson, Madieu Williams (30 years old, has only started 16 games in the last two years), and the recklessly troubled Brandon Meriweather, who is questionable with a knee injury. If Meriweather can’t go, Reed Doughty will be the likely starter.
At press time, the Saints are a 9.5 point favorite for Sunday’s matchup with the Redskins. That’s understating things a bit, methinks.
Bonus CHFFs: The importance of starting strong
Since there’s yet to be any action in the 2012 season, it’s particularly hard to analyze anything beyond the realm of “reasonable speculation.” The above entries are largely based on preseason action, and 2011 statistics, so there’s a good chance what’s written above, as with many other speculative works, is but a leap of faith.
As time goes on, this bi-weekly NFC East blog will have more to work with when the games play out. Until then, it’s perhaps appropriate to end this NFC East week one preview with some more statistical analysis that will be of interest to hardcore stat geeks, while not necessarily reflecting what lies ahead.
I’ve taken a look at how the Giants, Eagles, Cowboys, and Redskins fared after their first four games in every season dating back to 2002, just to see if where they ended up reflected how they started the year.
First off, none of the teams have started any season from 2002 to present with four losses. The Redskins and Cowboys were both 0-4 to start 2001 (Washington went 0-5, losing to Dallas in week five), but nobody’s begun so entrenched on the schneid since realignment. So, uh, kudos to all?
Teams Starting 1-3: this has happened only 4 times out of 40 possible instances: 2004 Redskins, 2007 Eagles, 2010 Cowboys, and 2011 Eagles. None of the aforementioned teams made the playoffs, but the Eagles made it to 8-8 in both their instances. Still, 1-3 is seemingly a veritable death curse for NFC East teams with Super Bowl dreams.
Teams Starting 2-2: out of 40 instances since 2002, this has happened 18 times. In ten cases, the team missed the playoffs (the 2003 Giants and 2009 Redskins ended up 4-12). In only 3 out of 18 instances did a team that began 2-2 win the NFC East title (2003 Eagles, 2009 Cowboys, 2010 Eagles).
The 2007 Giants began the season 2-2, and made into the playoffs as a wild card at 10-6. All they did after that was win three straight road games, advance to Super Bowl XLII, and defeat the 18-0 New England Patriots, but really, what relevance does THAT serve?
Teams Starting 3-1: In 40 cases, it’s happened 14 times. Amazingly, 6 of those teams missed the playoffs altogether: the Redskins three times (2003 (5-11), 2008 (8-8), 2011 (5-11)), and one time each for the rest (Giants in 2004, Eagles in 2005 (both 6-10), and the Cowboys in 2008 just missed at 9-7).
Four teams went on to win the East after a 3-1 start: 2002 Eagles, 2005 Giants, 2006 Eagles, and 2011 Giants. The latter team, of course, would go on to win Super Bowl XLVI. Still, only 4 out of 14 teams began 3-1 and won the division? Something can be said about late season momentum.
Teams Starting 4-0: In the four instances, only one team missed the playoffs (the 2009 Giants, 8-8), whereas the remaining teams all won the division: the 2004 Eagles (13-3), 2007 Cowboys (13-3), and 2008 Giants (12-4). Of those three, only the Eagles won a playoff game, and were the only one of the three to actually make the Super Bowl.
Playoff Making Odds for the NFC East Since 2002
After Starting 1-3: 0% (0 for 4)
After Starting 2-2: 44% (8 for 18)
After Starting 3-1: 57% (8 for 14)
After Starting 4-0: 75% (3 for 4)