By Jason Keidel
Though the Dallas Cowboys are 6-1, and have resumed their campy title as “America’s Team,” there are other football teams in the NFL in general, and in the NFC East in particular.
Two of them — the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles — will be playing this Sunday at MetLife Stadium, five minutes from where yours truly is writing this piece. The winner will remain no more than two games behind the Cowboys, while the loser will drop into the sludge of .500 teams gawking up at the league’s aristocracy.
The Eagles darted out to a 3-0 start, whipping the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were also undefeated at the time, and planting their flag as kings of Pennsylvania, or Wentzylvania, as the commonwealth became in honor of rookie sensation Carson Wentz.
The Eagles have stumbled back to the mean, losing three of their last four games, including that agonizing, overtime loss at Dallas last week. They sit at 4-3, which is where most folks saw them before the season. Indeed, the dual, dazzling starts may have created a false impression that the Eagles were Super Bowl-bound sans any rebuild. And that was never realistic.
If you told Philly fans that the Eagles would be 4-3 and in the thick of playoff talk, having found their franchise quarterback for the next decade, most would have signed up. Only the 3-0 start left the masses slightly jaded.
What should surprise fans is not the tweaks and improvements on offense, but their robust defense. Head coach Doug Pederson was tabbed for his offensive acumen, yet out of 16 NFC teams, only the Seattle Seahawks (109) and Minnesota Vikings (104) have yielded fewer points than the Eagles (117). Philadelphia ranks seventh in the NFL in overall defense (328.9 YPG), fifth in pass defense (214.1 YPG) and tied for third in sacks (22).
The Giants faced less uncertainty entering this season. They have been set at quarterback for a dozen years, with Eli Manning never missing so much as a snap. They have the most electric WR in the sport, in Odell Beckham Jr, and two solid, second-tier wideouts on his flank, in Victor Cruz and rookie Sterling Shepard.
Like the Eagles, the Giants are taking a turn with a rookie head coach, after firing the iconic Tom Coughlin, who not only won two Super Bowls, but also has the most wins in franchise history. It’s never easy firing a surefire Hall-of-Fame coach, but the sense in Gotham was that Coughlin’s red-faced visage and military ethos weren’t reaching the team anymore.
Enter Ben McAdoo, who, like Pederson, was hired for his offensive acumen. The results have been mixed. The Giants (4-3) are tied with Philadelphia for second place in the division, and have a chance to nudge up the standings while sending a message that Big Blue is back.
Despite McAdoo’s assumption of the headset, the Giants aren’t exactly scorching the gridiron on offense, ranking 19th in total yards (345.3) per game and 26th in points scored (19.0). At least their passing attack is pretty healthy, averaging 275 yards through the air per game, less than one yard behind the Bengals for 5th in the NFL.
All of this despite Beckham’s very surreal and very public meltdown over a two-game stretch, perhaps the emotional carnage from his ugly tete-a-tete with Josh Norman last December. It seems, for the moment, that Beckham has his head right. The Giants will need him on his best behavior on Sunday.
The old wisdom says toss out the box scores, stat sheets and spread sheets when divisional foes play, as rivalries always transcend normal metrics.
No one expected the Cowboys to be essentially tied for the best record in football — other than Jerry Jones, perhaps, who sees his team through a fairy tale prism every season. And expectations fell when Tony Romo’s balky back acted up and forced fourth-round pick Dak Prescott into action. Prescott has been such a revelation that fans may be looking forward to Romo’s retirement party.
Even still, many cynics see this hot start as fool’s gold, and expect the Cowboys to fall back into the pack, where they belong. If and when they do, the winner between the Giants and Eagles will be waiting, for an old-school, old-style scrum in the NFC East.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.