Judy Battista highlights the storylines and factors to pay attention to in Week 6, beginning with the renaissance of a high-profile division and continuing with 10 more things to watch below.
Antrel Rolle, the New York Giants safety who talks as hard as he hits, offered a prelude to Sunday night's game in Philadelphia by essentially reminding everyone how awful Big Blue was last year. As trash talking goes, it was unorthodox. But in undercutting a rival's surprising accomplishment -- the Eagles won the NFC East in Chip Kelly's first season as coach and with Nick Foles at quarterback -- Rolle was merely stating what was obvious to anyone who has heard of Lawrence Taylor and Troy Aikman.
"I said what I said," Rolle said. "That's no discredit to Philly. Obviously, they were the best team in our division last year. They finished 10-6. That's an awesome record for any team in the NFL. I said what I said. Division was weak, in my opinion. That doesn't discredit Philly under any means. If they want to take it that way, then so be it. The game still has to be played come Sunday."
When it is, the division's brief decline into "NFC Least" territory might mercifully be over.
The NFC East still hasn't put two teams in the postseason since 2009, reflecting a downward trajectory that was obscured in part by the Giants' Super Bowl runs in 2007 and 2011. But the division that was so dominant in the 1980s and '90s -- producing multiple championships in New York, Washington and Dallas, and even a Super Bowl appearance for Philadelphia -- appears to be on the way back. It might be devoid of players capable of matching the all-time greats who powered their teams to all those titles, but the revival of the Giants and Cowboys -- thanks to revamped offensive approaches -- has been enough to at least restore the competitiveness of the early-to-mid-2000s, pulling the division out of the quicksand of mediocrity into which it had fallen in recent years.
Last year, the NFC East had the second-worst winning percentage in the game (.438), ahead of only the woeful AFC South. This year, it has the second-best winning percentage (.600), barely behind the AFC North. And the NFC East has the second-best record in games outside the division -- the best barometer of how it stacks up against the rest of the NFL, and an early indicator of postseason promise -- again behind only the AFC North and ahead of the vaunted NFC West.
Philadelphia and Dallas are both 4-1, tied with the Chargers for the best record in football. Entering Week 6, the Eagles, Cowboys and Giants were all in the top eight in scoring. Even with Washington (1-4) falling again into a Robert Griffin III-less abyss, it is a remarkable recovery for the only division that did not have a postseason win over the past two seasons. The lack of consistent powerhouses -- or even just reliable contenders -- might be best summed up with this oddity: The order of finish in the division in 2013 (Eagles, Cowboys, Giants, Redskins) was the exact opposite of the order of finish in 2012, the first time that's happened since realignment in 2002.
This Sunday's lineup -- in addition to the Giants-Eagles showdown, the Cowboys play at Seattle -- will provide the first real snapshot of whether the NFC East is in for a late-season free-for-all, or if it has the necessary depth to place more than one team in the postseason. Next Sunday, New York travels to Dallas.
The Giants lost their first two games of this season. But their recent turnaround -- which allowed the Giants to avoid repeating the disastrously longer drought that befell them at the beginning of last season -- is most responsible for fueling the hope that the NFC East has rebounded. Still, there remain significant questions about all three teams that underscore the fragility of their viability as playoff contenders. Can the Giants, who have averaged 35 points per game in the past three weeks, sustain their new offensive success? Is Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy, who is averaging just 2.9 yards per rush, still a significant threat? Can the Cowboys' D (which ranked a surprising eighth in scoring defense through Week 5) hold up, and will coaches finally remain committed to the second-ranked running attack?
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However, unlike last season -- when the NFC East had, at one point in mid-September, an 0-4 weekend and two 0-2 teams and two 1-1 teams -- the division's members are winning while sorting out their problems.
In recent years, the only thing predictable about the NFC East was that the division championship would be decided by the last game of the season -- and it always involved Dallas, which always lost. The Cowboys are laughingstocks no more, and neither is the division. It is competitive enough again that the games have greater meaning, and the pregame chatter has extra bite.
"I just know that we are a good team on both sides of the ball, and we play very, very well on special teams," McCoy said. "I think last year we obviously won the division, and we are looking forward to doing the same thing this year. I think that is your guys' pick, to choose who the team to beat is after this. We are just going to try and continue to win games and be consistent."
That is more than the NFC East has had in a while.
Here are 10 more things to watch as the rest of the Week 6 schedule plays out:
1) A study in opposing trajectories. Rarely does the NFL present such a definitive picture of its polar extremes as it will when the Broncos visit the Jets. Peyton Manning needs five touchdown passes to tie Brett Favre's all-time record. Manning has thrown for at least five touchdowns eight times, twice last season. Rex Ryan's Jets, meanwhile, have given up five or more touchdown passes just once (last year to Andy Dalton in Week 8), while Manning's career record against Ryan's Jets (1-2) is tied for his fourth-worst winning percentage against any head coach. But consider this terrifying stat for Gang Green: The Broncos' red-zone offense is first in the NFL (76.9 percent touchdowns), while the Jets' red-zone defense is 31st (allowing 73.3 percent touchdowns).
2) The battle for the AFC East lead.The matchup between the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills, who are tied for first in the division at 3-2, will also be a referendum on Tom Brady. His current passer rating this season of 85.5 would be his worst ever. Brady's 60.47 completion percentage would be his worst since 2003, while his yards-per-attempt mark (6.3) would be his worst since 2002. His rebuilt offensive line will be under the gun; the Bills' defense is tied for the league lead with 17 sacks.
3) The Raiders' attempt to begin anew. Recently appointed interim coach Tony Sparanoburied a football to try to bury an 0-4 start. But the hole figures to get deeper against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. The Raiders have posted a three-and-out on 34.1 percent of their drives this season -- the highest such mark in the NFL -- and they've scored 14 or fewer points in each of their four games. The Chargers have allowed fewer than 13 points per game, leading the league in scoring defense.
4) Can the Cowboys' run-centric offense thrive against the Seahawks' top-ranked rushing defense? Dallas has picked up more than 120 yards on the ground in each of its five games, but the offense figures to have to shift to the pass in Seattle. Watch the middle of the field, where Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has completed the highest percentage of his pass attempts (75.6) -- and where the Seahawks are the toughest to pass against. Seattle is allowing a passer rating of 85.6 on throws to the middle, 20 points below the rating on passes to any other part of the field.
5) Can the Cardinals' injured defense get any pressure on Kirk Cousins? Arizona -- which has just four sacks on the season -- likely will face a heavy dose of Washington's play-action game on Sunday. Cousins has a 140.4 passer rating on play-action passes, best in the NFL. On non-play-action passes, however, his rating is just 77.9.
6) Has the Browns' defense improved since Ben Roethlisberger threw for 365 yards against Cleveland in Week 1? Roethlisberger has spread the ball around -- four Steelers have at least 20 receptions. And he is completing 66.7 percent of passes that travel at least 20 yards in the air, the highest percentage in the NFL. Expect him to go after Joe Haden. Quarterbacks have a passer rating of 138.4 when targeting Haden, according to Pro Football Focus. Of the 22 times he's been thrown at, he's given up 16 receptions. Of course, for Roethlisberger to target him, the Browns cornerback will have to be on the field in Cleveland; Haden missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday.
7) Can the Dolphins' running game help slow down Aaron Rodgers? In their two wins this season, the Dolphins averaged 174 rushing yards, while in their two losses, they averaged 110.5. With quarterback Ryan Tannehill gaining just 5.82 yards per pass attempt and the Packers' defense allowing a league-worst 163 rushing yards per game, a ground-and-pound attack against Green Bay could help Tannehill keep his job for another week.
8) Can Jim Harbaugh keep his unbeaten "Monday Night Football" record intact amid questions about his future? Harbaugh is 5-0 on Monday nights, and nearly every statistic favors the San Francisco 49ers over the St. Louis Ramsthis week. But one in particular is worth keeping an eye on in light of San Francisco's renewed (and successful) emphasis on the run: The 49ers rank third in the NFL with 145 rushing yards per game, while St. Louis' defense is allowing an average of 152.5 rushing yards per contest, tied for 29th. Frank Gore has gone over 100 yards in each of San Francisco's two consecutive wins.
10) Does the league's remarkable run of big comebacks continue? There have been 16 comeback victories of at least 10 points, nine of at least 13 points and five of at least 17 points, the second-most such comebacks through Week 5 since 1970. Cleveland's comeback against the Titans last week -- the Browns came back from a 25-point deficit -- was the third-biggest in regular-season history. The biggest: 28 points, accomplished by San Francisco in a win over New Orleans in 1980.