By Justin Henry (@cynicjrh)
NFC East Beat Writer/Michael Myers' Anger Management Counselor
September 5, 2012 was an eternity ago, but it might still feel like yesterday to the defending Super Bowl Champions.
On that night, the Giants became the first reigning champions since the 1999 Broncos to lose their first game of the season. The NFL didn’t begin airing mid-week season openers until 2002, so those fans at MetLife Stadium represented the first crowd to be disappointed at the outcome of the special season opener.
And who beat those G-Men? Why, those hated Dallas Cowboys, that’s who.
Revenge will be on New York’s mind this Sunday at JerryLand, where the Giants will try to improve their division record to 2-2, while Tony Romo and the Cowboys will try to remain in the thick of the division hunt, despite numerous injury setbacks, and speculation that Jason Garrett could be in jeopardy of losing his job.
Elsewhere in the East, the Eagles come off of their bye looking to demonstrate some retooled rejuvenation against the NFL’s last undefeated team, and the Redskins hope their running onslaught will be enough take down a once-great, now-fading defense.
1. Why the Giants Will Beat the Cowboys
1a. Dallas can’t handle the points avalanche
New York is averaging 29.3 PPG, the third best median in the NFL. Only twice have they scored below 20 points, and they were a pair of 17-point performances, both losses to Dallas and Philadelphia. Their next lowest output is 26 points, and they’ve maxed out with a couple 41-spots on the Browns and Buccaneers.
As far as Dallas is concerned, they’re 0-3 this season when an opponent scores more than 18 points on them, but 3-0 when they hold foes to 17 or less. New York’s last 3 games: 41, 26, 27, with an average of 412.3 yards of total offense per game.
1b. The Sack Attack is back
Tony Romo may have survived Carolina’s pass rush, even after center Phil Costa went down, but a good line can still flatten him. Tampa Bay’s progressive defense got to him 4 times in Week 3, while the Giants did get to him twice in the opener.
Then again, Chicago only got to Romo once, but still forced 5 interceptions (2 for touchdowns) from the constant pressure. In a sense, those ‘negative passing plays’ are just as good as sacks.
Since the Week 1 loss, the Giants have 15 sacks over 6 games. More impressive, they have 10 turnovers over their last 3 games, which includes 6 picks and 4 fumble recoveries.
Even if the sack doesn’t happen, New York has proven capable of forcing bad plays. The Giants have forced a sack or interception on 12.24 percent of their plays this season.
1c. No DeMarco Murray
New York’s had their hands full with dual running threats this year (Michael Vick/LeSean McCoy, Robert Griffin III/Alfred Morris), but have also managed to take running backs out of the game by forcing early turnovers and scoring quickly. For a good example of that, look at that San Francisco game, when Jim Harbaugh abandoned Frank Gore entirely when New York had an early lead.
DeMarco Murray was used liberally in the opener (131 yards on 20 carries), but will likely miss this game with a foot injury. Felix Jones didn’t fare that well against an unspectacular Panthers defense, so Dallas becoming more one-dimensional plays right into Perry Fewell’s hands.
2. Why the Cowboys Will Beat the Giants
2a. Dallas can stop the run
Only twice this season has an opponent gone over 100 rushing yards against Dallas, and only one single player has a 100-yard day on the Cowboys (Marshawn Lynch, 122 yards).
Running backs they’ve hemmed in during this season
-Ahmad Bradshaw (78 yards, but minus one 33 yard run, averaged just 2.81 YPA)
-Doug Martin (2.79 YPA)
-Ray Rice (3.94 YPA)
-Jonathan Stewart (3.5 YPA)
Granted, Sean Lee is out for the year now after requiring foot surgery, but one can’t judge the run defense until it’s known how they’d do without him.
2b. Secondary was effective on Giants’ receivers in opener
Assuming the first bullet point holds true, and the Bradshaw/Brown/Wilson triumvirate proves ineffective, then it’s up to Eli Manning to throw, and he does have some proven targets.
However, in that opener, the most yards gained by any receiver was Victor Cruz, who was held to 58 yards on 6 catches (this was also his infamous 3-drop game). Domenik Hixon and Hakeem Nicks didn’t fare much better, adding 3/55 and 4/38 respectively.
Only 3 receivers this year have recorded 80 or more yards against Dallas’ defense: Brandon Marshall (138 on 7 catches), Anquan Boldin (98 on 5 catches), and Steve Smith (83 on 7 catches). These performances have been over Dallas’ last 3 games, so the pessimist could say that the secondary’s trending toward the worst.
But then the optimist would come back with, “They know what to expect from New York; they played and beat em once already.”
2c. Giants defense susceptible if they can’t force turnovers
Bend, but don’t break. That’s been an unstated motto for many a defense, and it applied to New York this past Sunday against the Redskins.
New York forced 4 turnovers on Sunday (3 fumble recoveries and a pick), and 3 of them occurred in Giants territory. While this speaks well to their ability to make a play with their backs to the wall, it also indicates that a cooler hand (with a little luck) could tack on a field goal or even a touchdown by staying out of trouble.
Since coming off the bye, Dallas has only 2 turnovers: an interception against the Ravens (in Baltimore territory) and a Miles Austin fumble vs. Carolina.
If that 5-INT game against the Bears did anything to Romo, it’s made him a little more cautious, and that caution would serve him well against a wrecking ball defense like New York.
3. Eagles Look to Continue Post-Bye Magic vs. Falcons
Armed with a new defensive coordinator in Todd Bowles, and the knowledge the Eagles are 13-0 after the bye under Andy Reid, there’s no way Philadelphia can lose on Sunday, right?
It remains to be seen.
That resume of perfection includes luminaries like the 1999 World Champion Rams, the 2001 Giants in New York (whom the Eagles hadn’t beaten since 1996), 2002 World Champion Buccaneers, the 2008 Falcons, the 2010 Colts (finally beating Peyton Manning), and a 34-7 mauling of the 2011 Cowboys.
This time, the road is a daunting one, having to knock off the 6-0 Atlanta Falcons, aka the NFL’s last chance this season to replicate the 1972 Dolphins.
Here’s the truth: the Falcons haven’t beaten anyone great.
The combined winning percentage of Atlanta’s 6 opponents is 35.1 percent. That includes 2 3-3 teams (Denver and San Diego), a 3-4 team in the Redskins, and 3 rock-bottom teams in Kansas City, Carolina, and Oakland.
Only 2 of those wins came by more than 7 points.
Carolina (1-5) lost by 2, and Oakland (2-4) lost by 3.
Philadelphia has at least beaten 2 quality teams in the Ravens and Giants (both 5-2), even if they were skin-of-the-teeth victories.
More bad news for the Falcons: Atlanta gives up 5.23 yards per run attempt, the second worst average in the league. If Philadelphia’s looking to cut back on turnovers from Michael Vick, expect he and LeSean McCoy to be used heavily to break the spine of Atlanta’s D.
Bold prediction: Philadelphia will finally score 30 points this season. And if I’m wrong….well, it’s not like you can do anything about it.
4. Redskins Strive for Consistency in Steel City
Robert Griffin III is searching for something he’s yet to have in his young NFL career: consecutive victories.
The RG3-led Redskins have gone win-loss-loss-win-loss-win-loss in 2012, and are looking to avoid their second “losing streak” of the year against the inconsistent Steelers.
Pittsburgh has given up 102.3 rushing yards a game over their 3 losses this season, something that RG3 and Alfred Morris could build on.
The Redskins average 5.43 yards a carry, second best number in the NFL. They’re also averaging a staggering 177.7 rushing yards a game, which threatens to dent Pittsburgh’s middle-ground run-defense.
From the opposite side of things, Ben Roethlisberger matches up extremely well with Washington’s anemic pass defense. This is good news for the Steelers, since Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman have respective leg injuries that’ll match up poorly with the Redskins’ good run defense (3.88 YPA allowed).
Roethlisberger averages 294.2 passing yards a game, and just a shade under 2 touchdown passes per game. He’s also thrown only 4 interceptions this season.
Washington’s defense gives up 328.4 passing yards per game, and 16 touchdowns through the air over 7 games. To their credit, however, they do have 10 interceptions.
What would have been a defensive battle in eras past looks to be a high-scoring shootout between 2 teams that struggle on defense, but have insurmountable firepower to compensate.
The Steelers have Redskins have not combined for 60 points in a game since 1966, when the Steelers won 33-27. In the 13 matchups since, the teams have only combined for over 50 points 3 times.
5. Mini Power Rankings
1. New York (5-2)
Don’t worry too badly about the Giants’ division record being 1-2 at the moment. They won the Super Bowl last year while 3-3 in the East, and were 3-3 in 2007 as well. Just gotta win the other ones.
2. Philadelphia (3-3)
Combined winning percentage of teams they’ve beaten: 52.3 percent (11-10). Combined winning percentage of teams they’ve lost to: 47.3 percent (9-10). So, bring on the good teams!
3. Dallas (3-3)
Cracks look to be showing in the pass defense. First three games: 187, 133, and 91 net yards (YPG: 137). Since then: 267, 230, 216 (YPG: 237.7). Ever since Barry Church when IR is when the trouble started.
4. Washington (3-4)
Total yards of offense given up per game: 2896 yards (2299 passing, 597 rushing). In other words, the Redskins pass defense is giving up 79.4 percent of the offensive yards to opponents.