Inside the NL East Standings: Like a Stone

Inside the NL East Standings: Like a Stone

Like a stone, as in the Phillies' playoff hopes are sinking like one. Of course they're not finished, but this is as bad as things have been. Four games under .500 is the furthest below the mark the Fightins have fallen all season, last reaching this low point after a 2-1 loss against San Diego on May 12. The last time they were 8.5 back was June 1... 2007.

Meanwhile, the Nationals own their largest lead of the season in the NL East at three games, and they are starting to build a case for legitimacy. Washington is 13-6 over the past 19, winning six of seven to top it off. Their success prompts a new question: no, not are the Phillies out of it, but at what point does the immediate focus shift to a Wild Card berth?

'07 stands out because, as everybody knows, "the team to beat" went on to win the division that year. However, their remarkable run to the playoffs was aided in great part by their foe at the time, the New York Mets, whose epic collapse enabled the Phils to sneak in on the final day of the season. The Mets watched like helpless bystanders as a seven-game lead melted away over little more than two weeks in September.

It could happen to anyone, I suppose, including the Nationals. There's a big difference in 2012 though, that being Washington is more like Philadelphia in '07 than the present-day Phillies are. Young, hungry, and eager to prove they belong, there's a lot of baseball left to play, but they don't appear to be going anywhere without a fight.

Perhaps the greatest difference is what, or whom, is driving each team? The catalyst for the Nationals during their recent surge has been Bryce Harper, who over the past 19 games has seen his batting average rise from .230 to .295, to go along with 18 runs, four home runs, and 19 RBI. The Phillies, what's left of them anyway, all seem to be asleep at the wheel, and if you're expecting Chase Utley or Ryan Howard to serve as a spark in a similar manner, we're talking about 30-somethings coming off of injuries, not a 19-year-old perennial All Star-in-the-making.

The answer to our question at the top depends on how you feel about the rest of the clubs in the East, but the time has come to admit the Nats could be a force to be reckoned with this year. None of this matters if the Phillies don't start to pick up the pieces themselves, but even if they turn the ship around and fast, they may have given Washington too big of a head start.

Twins (24-35)

Minnesota spent a good portion of the early part of the season as the worst team in baseball, and still own the worst record in the AL, but I wouldn't be chalking up Phils victories just yet. The Twins are 9-3 in their last 12, and have been playing at a plus-.500 clip since mid-May. Theyve been feeding off a lower class of opponents, but it's not like the Fightins are vastly better right now.

The difference for Minnesota has been at the plate, specifically with a young player named Ben Revere. Revere bounced up and down between the big club and the minors, but since his call-up on May 17, he's been one of the more productive hitters in the league. The 24-year-old centerfielder leads the club with a .327 average and nine stolen bases, and for the month of June, he cracks the top five for hits and runs in the American League.

Pitching is their downfall though. The Twins have the worst ERA in the league, and the only starter in their rotation with an ERA under 4.00 is Scott Diamond, who is 5-1 with a 1.61 ERA. Naturally, the Phils will catch the 25-year-old rookie in Game 3.

Blue Jays (31-30)

Toronto has taken a roller-coaster ride to it's .500-ish record. Ranking third in the AL in run production, and second in home runs, the Jays have the ability to break out for double-digit runs on any given night. Their dangerous lineup is powered by RF Jose Bautista and DH Edwin Encarnacion, who are both tied for fourth with an identical 17 home runs and 44 RBI -- though Bautista is more boom or bust, sporting a .228 average this season.

The Blue Jays haven't been able to get consistent production out of their pitching staff though. Unlike the Twins and Orioles, they're not littered with starters who have astronomical earned run averages, but they are lacking that dominant presence. If you can get to those guys, Toronto owns one of the worst bullpens in the league, currently ranked 13th in the AL.

On deck: vs. Colorado, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Pittsburgh, @ Miami

Best of NFL: Redskins notch 1st win vs. Giants; Cowboys rout Bears

Best of NFL: Redskins notch 1st win vs. Giants; Cowboys rout Bears

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.  -- Dustin Hopkins kicked a 37-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter for his fifth of the game and the Washington Redskins avoid a near-disastrous 0-3 start with a 29-27 win over the penalty- and error-prone New York Giants on Sunday.

Kirk Cousins threw touchdown passes of 44 yards to DeSean Jackson and 55 to Jamison Crowder as the banged-up Redskins (1-2) handed new coach Ben McAdoo his first loss with the Giants (2-1).

Su'a Cravens ended the Giants' final drive with an interception in New York territory. It was Eli Manning's second pick of the quarter, with the other coming in the end zone by Quinton Dunbar after New York got to the Redskins 15 on a big play by Odell Beckham Jr.

This was a wild NFC East matchup that see-sawed the entire second half after Washington rallied from a 21-9 deficit (see full recap).

Prescott, Cowboys rout Bears on SNF
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Dak Prescott led scoring drives on all four Dallas possessions in the first half before throwing his first career touchdown pass, and the Cowboys beat the Chicago Bears 31-17 on Sunday night to snap an eight-game home losing streak.

With his second straight win, Prescott doubled the number of victories the Cowboys (2-1) had in 14 games without injured quarterback Tony Romo over three seasons before the rookie fourth-round pick showed up.

Prescott's first TD pass was a 17-yarder to Dez Bryant for a 31-10 lead in the fourth quarter, and he's up to 99 throws without an interception to start his career. Philadelphia rookie Carson Wentz has 102, and those are the two highest career-opening totals in NFL history.

Brian Hoyer had trouble moving the Chicago offense early with Jay Cutler sidelined by a sprained right thumb as the Bears fell behind 24-3 at halftime and dropped to 0-3 for the second time in two seasons under coach John Fox (see full recap).

Vikings stop Newton, snap Panthers' home win streak
CHARLOTTE, N.C.  -- The Minnesota Vikings keep finding ways to overcome injuries --and keep finding ways to win football games.

Sam Bradford threw a touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph, Marcus Sherels returned a punt for a score and the Vikings snapped the Carolina Panthers' 14-game home winning streak 22-10 on Sunday.

The Vikings put the clamps on Cam Newton, intercepting the league's reigning MVP three times and getting eight sacks, one of those resulting in a safety by Danielle Hunter. The eight sacks were the second-most ever against Newton.

"We have a great team -- the best team I have been a part of," said Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen, who had three sacks. "We come from every area on the field and we get sacks."

Said Newton: "They were dictating to us after they got the momentum."

The Vikings improved 3-0 despite losing running back Adrian Peterson and offensive tackle Matt Kalil to injuries last week. They lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the preseason (see full recap).

Bills bounce back with win over Cardinals
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.  -- LeSean McCoy scored twice and safety Aaron Williams returned a botched field-goal snap 53 yards for a touchdown in leading the Buffalo Bills to a 33-18 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

Quarterback Tyrod Taylor also scored on a 20-yard run at a time the Rex Ryan-coached Bills spent the past week taking the brunt of criticism after opening the season 0-2.

The win also came on the heels of Ryan firing offensive coordinator Greg Roman and replacing him with running backs coach Anthony Lynn.

McCoy scored on 24- and 5-yard runs, and finished with 110 yards rushing after combining for just 117 in his first two games. Taylor had 76 yards rushing, including a 49-yarder, the longest by a quarterback in team history (see full recap).

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Doug Pederson: For the Eagles, 'this was a good benchmark'

Doug Pederson: For the Eagles, 'this was a good benchmark'

On his way to the locker room following his team's stunning 34-3 victory over the Steelers, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson reacted, well, like you probably did.

Pederson had to be surprised by what had just transpired. After all, this wasn't the Browns or the Bears. This was the Steelers, who entered the game with the second-best odds behind New England, per Bovada, of winning the Super Bowl (the Patriots were first). 

And the Eagles didn't just beat them. They clobbered them.

But minutes later, when Pederson met the media for his postgame press conference, he tried his best to act like it was no big thing.

“I told the team way back in OTAs that it just takes a little bit of belief," Pederson said. "Belief in themselves. Trust the process. Believe in the coaches and the coaches believe in one another. That’s what they did tonight. 

"Am I surprised? A little. But at the same time, I know that locker room, I know those guys and I know what they are building. By no means have we accomplished anything yet. The season is still extremely young. But what they did tonight just proves that they are coming together as a football team.”

Yeah, yeah. Sorry, Doug. It's OK to be surprised. Scratch that. Make that stunned. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year. But now? Forget that. 

At least for the next two weeks. The Eagles are on their bye week and don't play again until Oct. 9 at Detroit. 

“It is still a young season, only three games. This was a good benchmark," Pederson said. "That’s a good football team, the Steelers are a great football team. They are going to be there at the end, they always are. Coach (Mike) Tomlin always has those guys ready to play. 

"But for our guys, it is just a little glimpse of that belief that I have been saying since the spring and summer. If they just do their jobs, I just feel that good things can happen. We just protect each other in that dressing room in there and keep coming to work everyday.”

Pederson is the only head coach in team history to win each of his first three games. It's only the ninth time the Eagles have started 3-0.

And of course, a big reason they've done so is their prodigy quarterback Carson Wentz, who became only the second rookie in team history to record a 300-yard passing game (Nick Foles is the other).

More impressively, Wentz now has attempted 102 straight passes without an interception, the longest streak ever begin an NFL career (per ESPN). Dallas'  Dak Prescott is at 99 after the Cowboys beat up the Bears.

But don't ask Pederson to admit he's amazed by Wentz or the fact he had the presence of mind to make plays like the riveting 73-yard TD pass to Darren Sproles (much more on that here).

“You know, you just put on his college film. Just watch him," Pederson said. "We exhausted his college tape and those were the plays that he made at North Dakota State. That play tonight was just a tremendous play by both he and Darren Sproles. Those are the types of things that we know he can do. He just keeps gaining confidence every single week.”

As does the defense, which kept one of the league's most potent offenses out of the end zone

"They just weren’t going to be denied," Pederson said. "They just weren’t going to bow their necks. They weren’t going to let them in the endzone. It just came down to our will versus theirs and I was just so happy with the way the guys played. Just a great team effort.”