On Sunday, something happened that hadn't happened since Week 8 of the 2008 season: All four teams in the NFC East won on the same weekend.
Due to the difficult circumstances and challenging opponents facing these squads, I was very surprised that this was the weekend in which the NFC East completed a sweep. In fact, I wouldn't have been shocked if all four teams had lost on Sunday afternoon.
The Dallas Cowboys were dealing with the tragic passing of one teammate (Jerry Brown Jr.) and the arrest of another (Josh Brent). They were also playing away from home, against a red-hot Cincinnati Bengals team in the midst of a playoff push. The New York Giants were facing a desperate and talented New Orleans Saints team, while the Washington Redskins were set to square off against the Baltimore Ravens, the top team from the AFC North. Very little was expected of a Philadelphia Eagles team, meanwhile, that was playing on the road against a hungry Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad.
Not only did all four teams win, they each did so in impressive fashion. The Giants overcame an early pick-six from Eli Manning to rout the Saints, while the Cowboys dug their way out of a nine-point, fourth-quarter hole to triumph over the Bengals. The Redskins fought back from a late deficit and found a way to win despite losing sensational rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III to an injury in the fourth quarter. The Eagles finally ended their eight-game losing streak with a dramatic, game-ending touchdown strike.
The playoffs are out of reach for the Eagles, though their young roster will continue to play hard down the stretch. The other three NFC East teams, however, are all very much in the postseason discussion. Let's take a quick look at Sunday's victories, as well as the future outlook for all four teams:
New York Giants (8-5)
How they won: The Giants outscored the Saints 17-0 in the fourth quarter to secure a 52-27 victory. Manning tossed four touchdown passes, but the real standout player for the Giants was rookie running back David Wilson: He rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns and also returned a kickoff 97 yards for another score.
What the future holds: The Giants will play their next two games on the road, against the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens, before finishing up the season with a home game against the Eagles. The emergence of Wilson is a huge development for the Giants' offense. With his explosiveness as a runner, he can serve as a tremendous complement to Manning's downfield passing attack. New York's remaining schedule is very challenging, but this team is still in a good position to win the division.
Dallas Cowboys (7-6)
How they won: Kicker Dan Bailey connected on a winning field goal just as time expired to lead the Cowboys to a 20-19 victory over the Bengals. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo and his receivers struggled to get in sync during the first three quarters, but caught fire in the final stanza. Running back DeMarco Murray didn't put up big numbers, but he ran very hard and picked up a key first down late in the fourth quarter.
What the future holds: The Cowboys host the Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints, then end the season on the road against the Washington Redskins. There aren't any cupcakes left on their schedule, but at least the Cowboys will be at home for two of the three remaining contests. The offensive line remains a concern, but Romo has proven he can escape pressure as well as any quarterback in the NFL.
Washington Redskins (7-6)
How they won: Rookie backup quarterback Kirk Cousins helped lead the Redskins to a thrilling 31-28 overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens. Robert Griffin III showed incredible toughness by playing a few snaps following a right knee injury, but he eventually had to leave the field, putting the game in the hands of his fellow rookie signal-caller. After allowing three passing touchdowns before halftime, the Redskins' defense played an outstanding second half.
What the future holds: The Redskins will play their next two games on the road, against the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles, before closing out the season with a home game against the Dallas Cowboys. How RG3 bounces back from what turned out to be a sprained knee will have a huge impact on the Redskins' postseason chances. They have won four straight games, and the remaining schedule is bearable.
Philadelphia Eagles (4-9)
How they won: As time expired, rookie quarterback Nick Foles tossed the game-winning touchdown to Jeremy Maclin, securing a 23-21 win over the Buccaneers. The Eagles had trailed by 11 points with less than four minutes remaining in the game. Foles showed impressive poise and accuracy down the stretch, while the Eagles' defense allowed the fewest points to an opponent since Week 5.
What the future holds: The Eagles will play their next two games at home against the Cincinnati Bengals and Washington Redskins, then finish the season with a road game against the New York Giants. The Eagles aren't going to make the playoffs, and they will very likely make a coaching change following the season. That being said, the improvement of the young players on this roster has to be encouraging for the front office and Eagles fans.
Rough day in the AFC North
While the NFC East enjoyed an undefeated week, the AFC North took a nosedive. The Cleveland Browns were the only team in the division to pick up a victory, crushing the hapless Kansas City Chiefs, 30-7.
Two of the division's losses were explainable: the Ravens' and Bengals' defeats in the aforementioned hard-fought games against the Redskins and Cowboys, respectively. However, I don't have a clue as to why the Pittsburgh Steelers played so poorly in their home loss to the San Diego Chargers.
I do a weekly guest spot on a San Diego sports-talk radio show. Last week, the host asked if I could envision a scenario in which the Chargers could win in Pittsburgh.
I thought. I thought some more. Nothing. I couldn't come up with any reasonable theory as to how the Steelers would lose this game.
Three startling statistics
1) In the past four games, the Cardinals' offense has produced three touchdowns for Arizona and four touchdowns for the opposition. This offense is very tough to watch. Three of those opponent scores came from interceptions, and one came from a fumble.
2) In his past four games, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has thrown eight touchdown passes and zero interceptions. He's also rushed for three touchdowns. Newton failed to live up to expectations during the first half of his second season, but his play over the past few weeks has been outstanding. His passer rating (88.0) is actually higher this season that it was during his much-celebrated rookie campaign (84.5).
3) Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has thrown for fewer than 200 yards in five of his past seven games. On Sunday, Flacco tossed three touchdowns, but he gave up two costly turnovers in the second half of the overtime loss to the Redskins. He really has struggled to play at a consistent level during all four quarters of the game.
Manti Te'o will be an excellent NFL linebacker
There is still plenty of football left in the 2012 NFL season, but it's never too early to look ahead to the 2013 NFL Draft. During this past week, I started the long process of breaking down game tape of the top college prospects. The very first player I studied was Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o. Here's my brief summary of the Fighting Irish linebacker:
Te'o has excellent size for the position, measuring in at 6-foot-1 and a solid 245 pounds. Against the run, he has rare instincts, plays downhill and is a reliable tackler. He has good speed to range laterally, but he lacks the elite burst of Patrick Willis, Brian Cushing or Jon Beason. Against the pass, he is outstanding as a zone defender. He quickly gets depth, puts his eyes on the quarterback and displays excellent anticipation.
I love the way Te'o directs traffic before the snap; in the games I studied, he directed the front and his fellow linebackers throughout. It reminded me a lot of how DeMeco Ryans looked when I evaluated him coming out of Alabama. Ryans had similar traits as both a leader and player.
Te'o might not have elite speed or explosiveness, but his combination of size, instincts and character will be very attractive to NFL teams in need of a middle linebacker. He likely will be chosen with one of the top 15 picks in the upcoming draft.
Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.