By Justin Henry (@cynicjrh)
NFC East Beat Writer/Dirt Devil's Advocate
At 5-2, the New York Giants have a fairly comfortable lead over the NFC East landscape.
The Giants 27-23, nerve-tugging victory over the Washington Redskins on Sunday puts assuring distance between themselves, the idle Eagles (3-3) victorious Cowboys (3-3), and the very Braves on the Warpath that they out-dueled (3-4).
The Giants victory gives them their first division victory of the year (1-2) after losing to Dallas on opening night, and Philadelphia in a Sunday night thriller three weeks ago.
The Redskins, meanwhile, remain unable to string together 2 consecutive victories, losing their fourth game of the season, each defeat by a touchdown or less.
As for Dallas, they get the Giants one week from now in a rematch of the 2012 opener, needing their victory over Carolina today to remain snugly close to New York in the standings. With unrest over both the coaching methods of Jason Garrett, and a foot injury to DeMarco Murray, the pressure was on Tony Romo to come through, and he did just that.
As Week 7 ends for the Glamour Division, the four teams’ identities are beginning to emerge. Despite any ugly blotches on the surfaces, it still remains anyone’s crown to take.
1. Manning Outlasts RG3 in Hard Fought Battle
Eli Manning is now 26-5 in the month of October, the best record of any quarterback since the merger, per the Elias Sports Bureau.
But it wasn’t until his final pass of the game that Manning was able to overtake Robert Griffin III in the latest chapter of the Giants-Redskins longstanding rivalry.
Despite being sacked 3 times, it was RG3 who had the better completion percentage (71.4 to Manning’s 65.0), threw 2 touchdowns to Eli’s 1, and had only 1 pass intercepted to Eli’s 2.
But Manning engineered his second fourth quarter comeback of the season, just 19 seconds (and 2 scrimmage plays) after Washington took a 23-20 lead on Santana Moss’ 30 yard touchdown catch.
After throwing an incompletion from his own 23 yard line, Manning launched a 77-yard touchdown strike to a wide-open Victor Cruz. Cruz punctuated the go-ahead score with an angry, Gronkowski-esque spike before seamlessly initiating a much more soothing salsa dance.
Manning exceeded even New York’s league-best 7.49 YPA passing with 8.43 YPA (337 yards on 40 attempts, 26 completions). Cruz was his best target, gaining 131 yards on 7 carries, including the 77 yard knockout punch.
This game marks Manning’s third 300+ yard game of the season, but the first time that he’s thrown more interceptions than touchdowns.
The Redskins averaged 7.48 YPA passing for the season, narrowly second-best in the league, and Griffin averaged an impressive 9.21 YPA, with a more efficient completion percentage than his New York counterpart. But after the Manning-Cruz connection, it would be New York’s defense who would decide the contest.
More on that later.
2. Redskins Stronger on the Ground
Someone might interpret the Giants’ 2 rushing touchdowns and the Redskins lack of a single 6-point run as New York dominating the ground attack.
Touchdowns alone don’t tell the story.
Excluding 2 runs by Manning, a 5-yard scramble and a kneel-down, Ahmad Bradshaw and Andre Brown were the entire Giants running attack, scampering for 60 yards on 17 carries (3.53 YPA).
This number is especially surprising, considering 1) the Giants averaged 4.6 YPA rushing heading into Sunday’s game and 2) the Redskins allow a modest 3.95 YPA rushing.
Of the 17 attempts between Bradshaw and Brown, 9 of them came after halftime. Since quarterbacks have a 94.23 QB rating against the Redskins defense, you can see why Manning and company would be so gung ho on testing their defensive durability.
Washington meanwhile, despite having nothing on the scoreboard that of direct-consequence to their running attack, ran for 248 yards on 38 carries (6.53 YPA). 18 of those carries came in the second half for 106 yards (5.89 YPA), with the cost of 2 lost fumbles; 1 apiece for RG3 and Alfred Morris.
Griffin ran for 89 yards on 9 carries (9.89 YPA), while Morris had 120 yards on 22 carries (5.45 YPA). Seldom-used back Darrel Young added 26 yards on 5 carries (5.2 YPA), and WR Aldrick Robinson contributed a 14 yard run.
For the third time this season, the Giants gave up over 100 rushing yards in a game, and also for the third time, it was to a division rival. DeMarco Murray pounded New York for 131 yards alone, while Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy tag-teamed for 172 yards three weeks later.
This time, however, despite giving up the run, the Giants weren’t beaten by it.
3. Giants Defense Makes the Difference
What New York was unable to do in run-stopping, the G-Men more than made up for in timely plays otherwise.
In all, the Giants had 3 sacks, an interception, and 3 fumble recoveries, but it was the timeliness of those takeaways that proved to be the difference-maker.
With the exception of a Justin Tuck of RG3 late in the first half (which came on a third down in field goal range), all of Washington’s cough-ups took place in the final 30 minutes.
All 3 fumbles came at inopportune times (as if circumstances are ever favorable for a team to lose the ball), as the Jets were in positions to either add points at their convenience, or found themselves in dire need to regain the lead.
Fumble 1: Alfred Morris coughs up the ball with 8 minutes to go in the third quarter with the score tied at 13. The fumble was recovered at New York’s 41, one play after the Redskins were called for holding deeper in Giant territory.
Fumble 2: This time, it was RG3’s loss, squandering a near 6-minute drive at New York’s 27 yard line, down 20-13. One play after the fumble, Manning was picked off by Rob Jackson. The Redskins managed to salvage things with a field goal to make it 20-16 with 5:21 left.
Fumble 3: Down 27-23 in the final minute, the Redskins try to engineer the winning drive, but Santana Moss (who made a big show of his go-ahead touchdown a minute earlier) loses an 11-yard completion at his own 32 to Jayron Hosley to end the game.
RG3 may have outplayed Eli Manning, and the Redskins running game looked stellar. But in the end, the costly mistakes proved to be just that: costly.
4. Romo’s Even Keel Guides Cowboys to Victory
With DeMarco Murray out with a foot injury, and the not always consistent Felix Jones having one of his “Hyde” days (15 carries, 44 yards), Tony Romo had to shoulder more of the load one week after a painful loss to Baltimore.
Things looked even bleaker as center Phil Costa went out with what looked like a serious ankle injury (X-rays were negative), and Ryan Cook was forced to fill in the rest of the way. The injury occurred after a Miles Austin fumble, which led to Carolina taking a 7-3 halftime lead.
In the second half, Romo expertly rebounded Dallas, going 12 for 18 for 129 yards and a touchdown (106.0 QB rating), facilitating 2 lead changes, guiding the Cowboys to a 19-14 victory.
Most amazingly, Romo wasn’t sacked once, especially after Cook stepped in to helm the hiker spot. Carolina had 14 sacks in their first 5 games coming into Sunday.
Romo also avoided throwing any interceptions, after throwing 9 in his first 5 games (5 of them to Chicago). The Panthers only had 5 picks on the year coming in, but this marked the first time this season Romo didn’t throw a single pick in any game he’s played.
Heading into 3 games against 2 of the best teams in the NFC, New York and Atlanta, as well as a road game in rival Philadelphia the week after, Dallas needed today’s win over the struggling Panthers more than anything.
For someone painted as a choker, Tony Romo certainly handled him well on Sunday when needed.
5. Where to From Here?
At 5-2, the Giants are 1-2 in their own division, and this could spell trouble if Philadelphia or Dallas get their acts together by December. The Giants need to beat the Cowboys next week to own the split, and will get the Steelers and Bengals before their bye. From there, the champions have several opponents currently on winning streaks in Green Bay, Atlanta, and even New Orleans; some of whom are bound to overpower New York’s not-always-stellar defense.
As I said in the “Bye Week Blues” segment in this past Thursday’s column, it’s going to come down to how Todd Bowles manages the defense going forward, and avoiding their nagging turnovers on offense. They could be 5-1 right now if not for blown fourth quarter leads, and they could also be 5-1 with bigger leads early. Weak teams like Carolina and Tampa Bay remain, and the Eagles still remain undefeated in the East, albeit 1-0.
Until Dallas establishes a winning streak of some sort, or just general consistency from week to week, it’s going to be hard to take them seriously as contenders. The running game still sucks, and Romo’s had 3 bad/mediocre passing performances this season. Dallas has just failed to remain consistent since Jason Garrett became coach, and a slate with the Giants again, the Falcons, Eagles (twice), Redskins (twice), and the Steelers will gut them considerably.
The Skins are still struggling with their pass defense, thanks to a litany of injuries and general inconsistent play. Among the gunslingers on their itinerary are Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning (at home this time), and even the likes of Michael Vick (twice) and Tony Romo (twice) who can have monster games following their lousiest of performances. If teams figure out Washington’s heavy run attack, the Redskins may struggle to readjust and create in-season.