By Justin Henry (@cynicjrh)
NFC East Beat Writer/Campaign Manager for Zombie Alexander Haig
Little did former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney know he may find his ultimate destiny linked to the play of former Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton.
With the exception of 2004, the result of the Redskins last home game before the Presidential Election has accurately projected who leads Americana for the next 4 years. If the Skins win, the incumbent party retains power. If they lose, the opposition takes control.
If President Barack Obama is a superstitious man, he’s surely a bit miffed that Newton and the Carolina Panthers chose today, of all days, to end their lengthy skid, beating the Redskins 21-13.
Elsewhere, the Giants and Steelers engaged in a hard-hitting slugfest, and Dallas challenged Atlanta’s perfect record. The Eagles would patiently wait for their showdown with the Saints, as the NFC East channels became smoother sailing around them.
1. Giants Blow Fourth Quarter to Steelers, Lose Chance to Expand East Lead
Four straight wins for the New York Giants, with an average margin of victory of 11.5 points, came to a screeching halt Sunday afternoon in MetLife Stadium.
The Pittsburgh Steelers overcame a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter, marking the first fourth quarter comeback of 10+ points for Ben Roethlisberger since December 2008.
Indeed, Mike Wallace would score on a 51-yard catch-and-sound-barrier-break early in the final quarter, and Isaac Redman would land the go-ahead score with 4:02 left to give Pittsburgh a 24-20 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.
This marks the first time the Giants lost a game going into the fourth quarter since November 13, 2011, when they blew a 13-12 lead against the 49ers, losing 27-20.
This also marks just the third time in Tom Coughlin’s tenure as Giants coach that New York lost after leading by 10+ points after 3 quarters (the New Miracle vs. the Eagles in 2010, as well as blowing a 21-0 lead over the Titans in 2006, losing 24-21).
Isaac Redman, virtually the only healthy running back in Pittsburgh’s fold, ran for 147 yards on 26 carries (5.7 YPA). That’s the most rushing yards any one player has gained on the Giants since December 2009, when Jonathan Stewart ran for 206 yards.
Redman is the fourth 100-yard rusher the Giants have allowed this year, after DeMarco Murray (131), LeSean McCoy (123), and Alfred Morris (120).
Pittsburgh, behind Roethlisberger, continued its league-leading third down percentage (51.92 percent) by going 6 for 13 on the day, while the Giants were merely a pitiful 2 for 10.
2. Is Eli Manning Regressing?
As impressive as Roethlisberger’s fourth quarter was (6 for 8, 99 yards, and a touchdown pass), Eli Manning had the inverse for his entire game.
For the third time in four games, Manning completed less than 54 percent of his passes. This time, he fell far below the 50/50 threshold, going 10 of 24 (41.7 percent) for 125 yards and an interception.
Manning hasn’t necessarily had to be stellar these past several games. The defense did much of the dirty work, whether it was picking off Alex Smith three times, forcing a litany of Redskins’ fumbles, or building a huge lead off of turnovers against Dallas.
Combined, over that three-game stretch, the Giants have forced 13 turnovers, and collected 13 sacks.
Ben Roethlisberger threw only one interception, but was sacked 4 times. Even then, his concentrated efforts in the fourth quarter were enough to overcome Manning’s inadequate performance.
Manning's first five games: 128/197 (65.0 percent), 1579 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, for a 95.8 rating.
Manning's last four games: 66/121 (54.5 percent), 847 yards, 2 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, adding up to a 68.4 rating.
Manning may be lucky, as 3 of his next 4 opponents rank in the bottom-10 in Defensive Passer Ratings: Cincinnati (fifth worst), Washington (eighth worst), and New Orleans (absolute worst). Only Green Bay, with their 10 interceptions and heavy pressure, provide a reputable threat.
While the Giants defense can rattle even the best quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers’ offensive line is about as reliable as a narcoleptic pilot), RG3, Rodgers, and Drew Brees have their own ways of avoiding pressure, and can stymie a defense with their dynamics.
In other words, Manning has to fix whatever’s bending his fastball if New York’s going to hold this division lead.
A week ago, the NFC East’s deed remained firmly in New York’s hands. With 2 division games and some other tough competition ahead, it’s not the sure thing it once was.
3. Dallas Falls Just Short of Knocking Off Perfect Falcons
Good news: the Dallas Cowboys are the first team to hold the Atlanta Falcons to below 20 points on the season.
Bad news: Dallas was held to 13 points, their second lowest output of the year
Worst news: The Cowboys lost 19-13, and fall to a dismal 3-5 on the 2012 season.
Despite breaking out to a 6-0 lead, and holding Atlanta scoreless in the first quarter, the Cowboys didn't land any more substantial punches, and gave up 16 consecutive points.
From 3:42 remaining in the first quarter, until 5:21 remaining in the fourth, Dallas did not score a single point.
Sadly for the Cowboys, Tony Romo performed excellently, throwing for over 300 yards on 71.4 percent passing, with a touchdown and no interceptions. Statically, he outperformed Matt Ryan, beating him in QB rating, 109.3 to 102.8.
It wasn’t enough.
The defense may have held the Falcons to four field goals (on six attempted; Matt Bryant missed 2 relatively easy ones), but they couldn’t stop Atlanta from breaking big gains and running the length of the field.
Specifically, the defense couldn’t prevent Michael Turner’s 102 yards and a rushing touchdown, nor could they stop a pair of 100-yard receivers in Julio Jones (129 on 5 catches) and Roddy White (118 on 7 catches).
The Falcons put up more yards, 453 to 377, and handled pressure better, going 7 for 14 on third downs to Dallas’ 3-of-10 showing.
Quarterback play wasn’t enough; Atlanta had the total package, and it was enough to get Home Depot’s favorite team to 8-0.
Dallas, meanwhile, ends the halfway point of their season 2.5 games out of first place, having lost 4 of their last 5.
4. Inconsistent Redskins Outclassed by Less Consistent Panthers
Going back to the start of the 2010 season, the Washington Redskins are 5-15 at FedEx Field, including a 1-3 mark on this ongoing 2012 campaign.
Their last four home losses were to the 3-13 Vikings late in 2011, and a couple of not-so-great teams this season: the 3-5 Bengals and 2-6 Panthers. At least they can claim defeat to the Falcons.
But the Panthers? The same Carolina team that hadn’t won since beating the defensively-challenged Saints on September 16?
Hey, take away their Week 3 spanking against the Giants, and Carolina hasn’t lost by more than 6 points in any of their other defeats. Twice they lost by a field goal or less, and those were to quality opponents in the Falcons and Bears.
This time, Cam Newton would match up with a defense as yielding as a cardboard guardrail, and led the Panthers 21-13 victory.
The Redskins team that gives up 325.6 passing yards a game only gave up 201 to Super-Cam, and on a mere 56.5 percent completion rate (13 of 23), but Newton was also mistake free. In fact, Newton failed to turn the ball over, allowing for 3 efficient touchdown drives with near-perfect offensive balance.
Not only is Washington susceptible to an overpowering passing game, but Carolina proved that slow-and-steady can win the race on them as well.
Newton also avoided being sacked, which is just as well, since Washington had only 14 sacks going into Sunday.
The Redskins didn’t play badly, also avoiding turnovers, but the little differences added up. Robert Griffin III was sacked 4 times (twice by Charles Johnson). Carolina also had a better third down percentage (45.5 percent to 33.3 percent), and averaged more yards per offensive play (6.6 to 4.5).
The Redskins enter their bye on a 3 game skid, with 3 division games (vs. Eagles, at Cowboys, vs. Giants) consecutively out of the chute afterward.
5. Opportunity Awaits the Eagles
The doomsayers, myself included, who declared the Philadelphia Eagles dead as a result of inefficiency and lack of effort, and were anticipating Jeffrey Lurie’s third head coaching hire, could be backing off a bit after Monday night.
The Giants, Cowboys, and Redskins all lost on Sunday. If Philadelphia prevails Monday night, they’ll be only 1.5 games behind the Giants, whom they defeated for their last victory on September 30.
To get to that position, and find themselves 4-4 at the season’s crossroads, they have to defeat a team with a worse record, a better offense, and a worse defense.
Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints are a split personality. On offense, they average 27.1 PPG, sixth best in the league. On defense, they allow 30.9 PPG, third worst in the NFL.
The Eagles, after the Michael Vick controversies, the finger-pointing, Andy Reid’s apparent Green Mile March, and all of the boneheaded mistakes, can find themselves back in the hunt with 8 games to play.
All they have to do is win Monday night, and that window that was slammed shut by us doubters creeks open just a smidge.
After all, only half the story has been told.