Who Will Be Top Dog in the NFC East?

Who Will Be Top Dog in the NFC East?

It's a simple truth, one there is really no need to debate: right now the NFC East is the toughest division in pro football. No division can claim to have four bigger market teams with more ravenous fan bases than the Eagles, Giants, Cowboys, and Redskins, and no division can claim to have four teams that play competitive football more routinely. Simply put, there aren't many gimmes in the NFC East.

Predicting who is going to come out on top isn't a whole lot easier. Last season, the Giants edged Philly and Dallas by one win, with their division championship boiling down to the final game of the season against the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football. Only the Redskins were also-rans, and they figure to be vastly improved this year.

The question is, who do you think will take it this year? We took a quick look at each team in the division, and we want to hear what you think.

Philadelphia Eagles

One thing you have to understand, the Eagles are traditionally very good within their own division. Last season they went 5-1 against NFC East opponents. In 2009 and '10, they were 4-2. It's a hallmark of Andy Reid teams, who are 38-22 against their rivals since the league went to four-team divisions in 2002.

They split with the Giants last season, but as we detail below, have been very strong against the team to the north. They demolished the Cowboys twice by a combined score of 54-14, granted Dallas was waving the white flag after the first quarter in meeting number two. They similarly pounded the Redskins 54-23, though they were already waving the white flag when the season began.

None of that necessarily means anything for next year. The Giants are the reigning world champions, the Cowboys are improved, and the Redskins could be a whole new team. Still, it's comforting to know there is something Reid does that gets his team prepared for these games. In 2011, the team that wore the crown last year finished 4-2 or better in six of eight divisions, at least 5-1 in five.

That looks good for the Eagles if they can continue to have success against the East, which is not a given. Two of their opponents got better over the offseason, and the other just won the Super Bowl.

Washington Redskins

The Redskins have had exactly four winning seasons in the last 19 years, and last reached the playoffs in 2007. However, there is reason to believe Washington could soon step out of the shadow that's been cast by the rest of the NFC East.

The Skins front office paid a steep price to move up four spots in April's draft to second overall, sending their first-round picks for the next two years and more to St. Louis to acquire Robert Griffin III. For a team that's won 15 games in the last three seasons combined, it will have been worth it if he becomes their franchise quarterback.

It's too early to anoint RG3 anything, but he instantly transforms Washington into a more credible opponent on any given Sunday. As we've seen in the past, whether it was Cam Newton in 2011, or Michael Vick when he entered the league with the Falcons, the combination of a pass-run threat under center can prove very difficult to defend even when it's a rookie. And Griffin is more advanced as a passer than either of those guys at this stage of their career, making him especially dangerous.

The Redskins are going to win more games this year, that much we're confident about. As far as climbing out of the basement and making a playoff bid is concerned, they are likely a few pieces away. The pieces around Griffin are lacking, and while the defense has a very good front seven, that secondary looks abysmal. They'll give teams trouble though, and it's a big reason why the East will once again be the toughest division in the NFL.

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys and Tony Romo remind us of the Eagles under Donovan McNabb in a manner of speaking. Obviously Dallas has been far less successful, but as outside observers, there's that appearance of Here they go again with a guy who hasn't won the big one. Heck, forget winning THE big one -- it seems Romo still hasn't won any big games.

To be fair, last season was one of Romo's best, and the fact the Cowboys finished 8-8 can hardly be blamed on him. That seems to be the problem in Dallas though. They finally get their quarterback to cut back on the horrible, hilariously ill-timed turnovers, mistakes, and all-around lousy performances, but they haven't seemed to complete the puzzle around him.

Which isn't to say Dallas won't have a good team this season, in fact they have one that could certainly win the East. They have tremendous talent at the skill positions, although none of them can seem to stay healthy, but the bigger problem is the interior of the offensive line still hasn't been addressed. The running game has suffered for years as a result, and Romo is constantly injured. He played 16 games last year, but battled rib injuries, plus missed 10 games in 2010 and three in '08.

That said, if Romo can survive a full season, one area that should see some improvement is the defense. The Cowboys completely revamped a secondary that ranked 23rd against the pass last season, which was seemed to be the primary source for the unit's issues. They've bolstered the ranks through free agency and the draft, so we'll see if it clears things up for Rob Ryan's group.

New York Giants

Like it or not, when they're the reigning Super Bowl champions, you have to admit the road to the top of the NFC East food chain goes through New York.

It was a traditional championship season for the Giants. Play just well enough to be a fringe Wild Card team only to watch the competition drop the ball, slip into a playoff spot, then get hot at the right time. That's how they did it in '07, that's how they did it last year. What it demonstrates is as long as they have Eli Manning and that destructive front four on defense, they will be in the mix.

The good news for the Eagles is they've had a great deal of success against the Giants recently. The Birds have taken seven of the last eight off of Big Blue -- eight of nine if you include postseason -- a run that goes back to 2008. New York finally broke up the winning streak with a W last season, then proceeded to lose the next tilt when Vince Young was under center.

So while the Giants are clearly the team to beat, the Eagles have had their number. That doesn't mean they will continue to own them in 2012, but New York is heading into the season with essentially the same squad as last season. It suggests the Birds can control their own destiny within the division as long as they take care of business elsewhere, just like last year.

One more Eagles victory, and the Giants don't even make the tournament -- now they're champions. Can't change history, but you can learn from it.

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”