Where the NFC East Stands After the Eagles' Bye Week

Where the NFC East Stands After the Eagles' Bye Week

If the Eagles have any designs on making the playoffs this season, they can't rely on getting in with a Wild Card spot, that's for sure. Besides the four division leaders, an additional four clubs are posting better records than Philadelphia in the NFC. Dallas also shares a 3-3 mark, while Detroit can match with a victory tonight. Only Carolina is stuck on one win.

There is plenty of time between now and December 30 for the landscape to change, but giving eight teams a head start on six tournament berths means there are fewer routes to the postseason. The clearest path for the Birds is through the NFC East.

It's not just the rest of conference holding their ground the Eagles have to worry about, although that is problem number one. The NFC North, for instance, currently supports three squads that appear to have staying power. The Bears and Packers each are at four wins, while the Vikings have five. If anybody were to fall off, our best guess would be Minnesota, but then again, they've built a nice cushion already. That's your two Wild Cards right there.

And as mentioned, the Eagles have to fear being out-paced by a team presently tied with or below them in the standings. While the Lions and Saints might be off to slow starts, both reached the postseason a season ago, so it's far too early to count either of them out, among others.

All of which speaks nothing of the surprising NFC West, where the worst record belongs to St. Louis at 3-4. A Wild Card isn't out of the question for anybody yet, but with so much competition, and the Eagles merely treading water up to this point, you can see how crowded -- and thus complicated -- the race could be.

No such hang-ups in the NFC East, where only one rival is out in front of the Birds, and tiebreakers are working in their favor. Here's a breakdown.

1. NEW YORK (5-2)

Wins: TB, @CAR, CLE, @SF, WAS
Losses: DAL, @PHI

Schedule: @DAL, PIT, @CIN, bye, GB, @WAS, NO, @ATL, @BAL, PHI

We've said it before, and we'll say it again: as long as Eli Manning is under center for the Giants, they always have a chance to win. That much was evident once again on Sunday when the two-time Super Bowl MVP connected with Victor Cruz on a 77-yard touchdown pass to retake the lead inside the final minute-and-a-half against Washington.

Unfortunately, that particular victory gave New York a lot of breathing room in the NFC East, and they look impressive. Since a flat loss to Dallas on opening night, the G-men possess dramatic comebacks over the Redskins and Buccaneers, completely dominated the Panthers and 49ers, and simply took care of business versus the Browns. Their lone defeat in the last five weeks is at Philly.

That's the bad news. The good news is the Birds can catch them. The only remaining dates the Giants have with opponents below .500 are at Washington and versus New Orleans -- not exactly a couple of pushovers. Tilts with Green Bay and at Atlanta loom especially large, but honestly, there is not one game on that slate you could comfortably describe as an "easy" W.

Even better, the Giants are in danger of falling way behind on tiebreakers. If the Eagles beat them again in Week 17, it's the same as pocketing an extra win, and if they only split, New York is 1-2 in division play right now, so the Birds (1-0) could still one-up them that way, too.

Which means the Eagles don't necessarily need to finish with more wins, and taking into account the Giants' schedule, making up two with a head-to-head on the table is entirely plausible. Heck, it's not even a long shot.

2. PHILADELPHIA (3-3)

Wins: @CLE, BAL, NYG
Losses: @ARI, @PIT, DET

Schedule: ATL, @NO, DAL, @WAS, CAR, @DAL, @TB, CIN, WAS, NYG

If the season ended today, the Eagles would hold the common opponents tiebreaker over Dallas by virtue of their win against the Ravens, so we've given them the benefit of the doubt and called this second place.

As daunting a schedule as New York faces in terms of quality opponents, Philadelphia's compares in sheer brutality. After dueling the NFL's last remaining unbeaten team in Week 8, the Eagles launch a stretch of seven games over 39 days, beginning on a Monday night in New Orleans, and finally concluding at home against Cincinnati on a Thursday.

During that span, the Birds play four times on the road, and three times on a short week, including both of their meetings with the Cowboys. Not only that, Dallas will have three days additional rest before their home game, plus Washington will be coming off a bye. True, among the opponents only the Bengals are above .500 at the moment, but that's three division battles, and the Saints and Bucs aren't exactly jokes, either.

This is a calendar that would test any locker room's mettle. Given the many issues the Eagles are dealing with -- their three wins being by a combined four points, and consecutive fourth-quarter collapses -- it's a run that could potentially destroy them.

The one thing the Eagles happen to have going for them is other than on the offensive line, the roster is relatively unscathed by major injuries. At least that much sets them up nicely for the gauntlet ahead, because there is little else here that instills much confidence.

3. DALLAS (3-3)

Wins: @NYG, TB, @CAR
Losses: @SEA, CHI, @BAL

Schedule: NYG, @ATL, @PHI, CLE, WAS, PHI, @CIN, PIT, NO, @WAS

In many ways, the Cowboys are a mirror image of the Eagles through six games. Both clubs are .500. Both defenses have been very stingy, while both offenses are struggling to score points. Both defeated New York in September, and both likely need to climb the ladder in the NFC East to continue playing football in January.

And nothing comes easy for the Cowboys, either, not even beating the lowly Panthers. Sunday's victory was saved by a pair of field goals to come from behind in the final few minutes. They've had their share of good wins, but they've won (@NYG, TB) and lost (@SEA, CHI) ugly -- sounds familiar.

One major difference between the bitter rivals is how their schedules set up down the stretch. If all goes well and Philly still has a shot to get in the tournament come December, they'll be involved in three ultra-important division games in December. In the Cowboys' case, we should have a fairly good idea about their postseason odds by Week 13.

Dallas plays divisional opponents in four of the next six games, which it stands to reason they'll need to do quite well in those to have an opportunity to advance. Toss in a battle against the unbeaten Falcons in the thick of it, and what you're looking at is a telling month-and-a-half of football in Big D.

Much like the Eagles once again, it's difficult to tell where the seesaw will land.

4. WASHINGTON (3-4)

Wins: @NO, @TB, MIN
Losses: @STL, CIN, ATL, @NYG

Schedule: @PIT, CAR, bye, PHI, @DAL, NYG, BAL, @CLE, @PHI, DAL

Sunday's heartbreaking loss (for D.C. and Philly fans) in New York serves as strong evidence the Redskins are still incomplete. Robert Griffin III bounced back from a pair of turnovers to lead his team on a fourth-quarter comeback against the reigning Super Bowl Champions. Then two plays later, Eli Manning is throwing a 77-yard game winner over the top of the Skins' secondary.

Washington's franchise may have turned a corner with the selection of RG3 in this year's draft, but they have too many holes to win on a consistent basis, even in instances when they probably should. The injuries are piling up, too, and the roster wasn't exactly deep to begin with.

However, the Redskins are suddenly built to play the role of a spoiler, and the Giants, Eagles, and Cowboys all better take notice.

Despite the presence of a pair of potential cupcake match-ups in Carolina and Cleveland -- though the Browns have been playing opponents tough all year -- the Redskins would have to overcome a lot to have any prayer of vaulting into the playoff picture. That said, their performance against the Giants was proof they are able enough to wreak havoc in the NFC East.

This is a dangerous bunch, and mark my words, the Redskins will knock somebody off at a critical juncture in this season. In due time, they will be a legitimate contender to the division throne.

Penn at Dartmouth: Quakers begin Ivy play on national TV

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Penn at Dartmouth: Quakers begin Ivy play on national TV

Penn (0-2, 0-0) at Dartmouth (2-0, 0-0)
Memorial Field, Hanover, N.H.
Friday, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Network

Penn certainly isn’t happy with how its first two non-conference games of the season went, but things get more serious now as the Quakers open Ivy League play on national TV. Here’s a look at what’s on tap.

Scouting Penn
Despite coming into the season with high expectations, the Quakers have gotten off to a slow start. After struggling defensively in a 49-28 loss to Lehigh in its season opener, the Quakers committed three turnovers in a 31-17 setback to Fordham last week. One bright spot vs. Fordham was the play of running back Tre Solomon, who led the way in both rushing (93 yards) and receiving (52 yards). But through two games, Penn has given up 494 yards per game, which ranks 110th out of 122 FCS teams.

Scouting Dartmouth
After sharing last year’s Ivy League title with Harvard and Penn last season, the Big Green enter conference play as one of the favorites again. Picked to finish third in the preseason (behind Harvard and Penn), Dartmouth opened the year by upsetting nationally ranked New Hampshire for the first time in 40 years and trouncing Holy Cross. Junior quarterback Jack Heneghan, a first-year starter who currently ranks second in the Ivies in total offense, led the way in last week’s win by completing 18 of 29 passes for 240 yards, a touchdown and zero interceptions. Ten different receivers caught passes for the Big Green, who are also employing a running back-by-committee approach with the team averaging over 200 rushing yards per game. Defensively, Dartmouth ranks 15th in the FCS in yards allowed per contest (311.5).

Series history
After winning 15 out of 16 games vs. Dartmouth heading into 2014, Penn has dropped its last two to the Big Green, including a home loss in last year’s Ivy League opener. Overall, the Quakers lead the series 47-34-2, and have won seven of their last nine games in Hanover. 

Storyline to watch
Penn’s dynamic duo of quarterback Alek Torgersen and receiver Justin Watson were on fire in the first half of Penn’s first game. But since then, they’ve struggled to keep their connection purring as Fordham, doubling Watson throughout the day, held Torgersen without a touchdown and limited Watson to just three catches for 33 yards. The two players have since looked at a lot of tape and have tried to figure out new schemes, so it will be interesting to see if they can bounce back at Dartmouth, especially if Watson again faces double-teams. 

What’s at stake?
This is a huge Ivy League opener under the lights with the winner getting an early leg up in the chase for the conference title. The loser can also still end up winning the crown (as Penn proved last season) but it will make it very difficult not to share it.

Prediction
Even though the Quakers are 0-2 and the Big Green are 2-0, Penn probably has the more experienced team. And even though it’s a tough trip to New Hampshire, the Quakers will be out for vengeance after last season’s loss.

Penn 31, Dartmouth 28

Eagles film review: To double or not to double Fletcher Cox?

Eagles film review: To double or not to double Fletcher Cox?

Ben Roethlisberger probably knew he was in for a long game against the Eagles defense on Sunday from the opening snap. Why? Because on the very first play, Fletcher Cox had already driven Pro Bowl right guard David DeCastro right into the Steelers quarterback's lap.

After registering 9.5 sacks in 2015, Cox's dominance is not in dispute. That was in an entirely different scheme though. Now that the fifth-year veteran is freed from his responsibilities as a five-technique defensive end in a 3-4 defense, he's allowed to go on the attack more as a wide-nine defensive tackle in a 4-3 alignment. What does that mean for opposing offenses?

The better question might be what does it mean for Cox's teammates?

As the film shows, the Steelers were faced with an impossible dilemma: try to block Cox one-on-one knowing his potential to take over a game, or double-team the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September and force the rest of the defensive line to beat them. It turns out, there was no right answer, because the Eagles' front four is more than capable of winning up front too.

Let's go back to the opening play from scrimmage though. The Steelers probably went in hoping DeCastro could hold his own at least a little bit against Cox — they did just award the guard a five-year contract extension worth $50 million. Take notice of where he begins the play, at about the Pittsburgh 23-yard line.

It looks like DeCastro is on roller skates, as Cox just pushes him straight into the backfield and right on top of Roethlisberger, impacting the quarterback's vision and ability to throw the football. He does manage to get rid of it, completing a pass to Antonio Brown for no gain.

That was only the beginning for DeCastro, who according to Football Outsiders Almanac had not allowed a sack since 2013 coming into this season. Cox would later fix that for him.

Here we are at 2nd-and-18 from the Eagles' 46-yard line in the third quarter, an obvious passing situation with the score 27-3 and the game quickly slipping away from the Steelers. DeCastro has already taken his share of lumps by this point, and Cox is coming again.

No. 66 is six yards deep in the backfield this time, and Cox has help. Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham are collapsing the pocket off the edges this time as well, leaving Roethlisberger nowhere to go.

Cox gets to the quarterback and knocks the ball loose for his second sack of the game, the recovery on the play going to Graham. The Eagles score again off of the turnover, and the rout is officially on.

Of course, Cox's ability to single-handedly take over a game is nothing new. Excluding nine plays labeled as screen or quick throws, he was on the field for 26 pass-rush opportunities on Sunday. 12 times, the Steelers tried to block him up one-on-one. The result of those snaps: Roethlisberger was 6 for 11 for 66 yards — a 6.0 average — with the sack fumble.

The problem is the Steelers didn't fare much better when Cox was double-teamed. It works to perfection in the frame above, giving Roethlisberger a huge pocket and all the time in the world on 3rd-and-6 to complete a 32-yard pass to Eli Rogers during the game's opening possession.

This was the exception though, not the rule. In fact, the Steelers hit on more big plays through the air, otherwise the passing attack was even worse when Cox was doubled. In those instances, Roethlisberger was 3 for 9 for 56 yards — a 6.2 average — with a seven-yard scramble and a 19-yard pass interference call, but also three sacks and an interception.

Because even if two bodies manage to take Cox out of the play, then the other three rushers are left in one-on-one. This is the play before the Roethlisberger fumble. On 1st-and-10, guard B.J. Finney and four-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey have the double team.

The tight end and running back are both there to chip, but Barwin, Graham and Bennie Logan at the other tackle spot are essentially all working one-on-one matchups.

Cox is taken completely out of the play. He's probably been moved a good six or seven yards away from where he started and is a total non-factor — well, except for the part where he took the attention away from Barwin, Logan and Graham. All three win their assignment and are collapsing the pocket, leaving no room to step and throw and no room to escape. Logan utlimately gets there first, beating DeCastro.

That type of attention on Cox can create all kinds of favorable situations for the Eagles defense.

This time, DeCastro and Pouncey have the double on Cox, but note that Vinny Curry has slid inside from his normal spot at end and is tucked in front of No. 58 Jordan Hicks on 3rd-and-6 from the Eagles' 22-yard line in the first quarter.

At 6-foot-3, 279 pounds, Curry is an excellent fastball to use situationally on the interior, especially when Cox draws all of the focus from the two best offensive lineman on the field. Veteran guard Foster escorts the pass-rusher to Roethlisberger, who somehow winds up getting out of this jam, scrambling for seven yards and a first down.

Despite the end result, Cox changed the entire outlook of a play, and he barely had to move. Escapes such as these are going to be rare against the wide-nine as well, just as long as there's pressure like this coming up the middle. Getting to the outside when Barwin and Graham are collapsing the pocket from those extreme angles off the edge is not easy.

Of course, a double team isn't necessarily going to stop Cox, even if it is a couple of Pro Bowlers in DeCastro and Pouncey. It's 3rd-and-7 at the Eagles' 13-yard line in the second quarter, and it's still a tight ball game at 10-0, so the defense needs a stop.

It looks like they have Cox contained, but he's not going to be denied.

Pouncey senses Graham breaking inside and leaves DeCastro to make the save there, which isn't going to have the desired result. The guard loses his leverage, and Cox has one of his two sacks for the game, holding the Steelers to three points in the process.

Again, we're not exactly breaking the news that Cox is a disruptive force or anything. That being said, there was some question whether he would live up to the six-year, $103 million contract extension he signed over the summer, or if he was ever worth that in the first place.

The reality is in this wide-nine, Cox can make this defense go. His very presence gives offenses impossible options — block him one-one-one and let him collapse the pocket by himself, or double team him and leave the rest of the offensive linemen on an island with the likes of Barwin, Graham, Logan and Curry.

The Steelers found out the hard way that there is no easy solution, or perhaps even no solution at all.

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