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Suddenly, Redskins Alone at the Top

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Washington Redskins are in first place in the NFC East. They will be there all week, too, one of only two undefeated teams in the conference. The Giants, Eagles and Cowboys all have one loss; the Redskins have none. Any day now there will be silly talk of a Bandwagon.

Joe Theismann picked them to go to the Super Bowl, you know. And it's not like they're leading some lame division, like the NFC North, where 8-8 could win the thing and there is no chance of producing a wild-card entry.

The NFC East isn't the strongest division in the conference; the South has that distinction, what with the undefeated Buccaneers, the Falcons and the perhaps overrated Panthers. But the East will probably be more fun because there's nobody to beat up on like the Saints or Packers or Cardinals. This NFC East is starting to look a little like your daddy's NFC East, stocked with good quarterbacks, tough defenses and, above all else, coaches who know what they're doing.

Hey, even the Giants are fun. Okay, it's early -- very early for teams such as the Redskins and Ravens, who didn't play last week. Still, the Giants are throwing effectively enough that Eli Manning, after three games, has a higher passer rating than his godly brother, Peyton Manning.

That's right, Eli has the 10th highest passer rating in the NFL and Peyton is 16th. Peyton has thrown two touchdown passes. Eli has thrown five. Dwight Freeney, the Colts' violently effective pass rusher, has twice as many sacks so far this season (four) as Peyton has touchdown passes. And it might turn out that Eli has to throw the ball a lot, even with Tiki Barber and rookie Brandon Jacobs running well, because the Giants' defense allowed the San Diego Chargers to score 45 points Sunday.

It's not like Eli Manning is the division's highest-rated passer, either. After league leaders Ben Roethlisberer and Carson Palmer (eight touchdowns, two picks, sacked only three times), the Cowboys' Drew Bledsoe (six touchdowns, two picks, six sacks) checks in at No. 3 in the NFL and old, familiar Donovan McNabb (eight touchdowns, two picks, five sacks) is No. 4. The lowest-rated passer of the NFC quarterbacks is Mark Brunell, No. 12 (out of 32 rated quarterbacks) with a bullet. Okay, it's early. Still, Brunell is ahead of P. Manning, Mike Vick, Brett Favre and Daunte Culpepper. By way of comparison, the four starters in the NFC North (Favre, Culpepper, Joey Harrington and Kyle Orton) rank 21st, 27th, 30th and 32nd, respectively.

Of course, the drama of the NFC East starts in Philly. When the season began, I listened intently to Ron Jaworski and Troy Aikman say that it's next to impossible for a quarterback and star receiver to effectively play together if they're not speaking to one another. I listen to Jaws and Aikman because they know what they're talking about when it comes to playing quarterback, because they know how much communication is necessary when trying to adjust on the sideline to defenses and conditions.

But so far, Terrell Owens's boycott of McNabb doesn't seem to be killing the Eagles, does it? Philly lost, as it should have, in Atlanta to the Falcons in the season opener. Otherwise, McNabb has done what he always does: find the receiver that makes sense in that situation. Against the 49ers, it seemed McNabb looked for T.O. too much, if that's possible.

The primary problem for the Eagles has nothing to with communication.

It does, however, have to do with health. McNabb has about three things hurting, including his chest. Brian Westbrook, the franchise's second most important player, has already been popped around. Philly is the team that should have traded bye weeks with the Redskins, many of whom wanted to keep playing off the momentum of the Monday night victory in Dallas. The Eagles, who simply cannot play effectively without McNabb, Westbrook or T.O., need a break now. They get one in two weeks, but not until after they've played at Kansas City and at Dallas. McNabb is not going to simply sit out a game to feel better because it makes sense to outsiders. He's going to play if physically possible, as will Westbrook.

The Eagles are going to have enough of a problem replacing David Akers, who may have sacrificed the rest of his season to attempt several kicks (thereby tearing his hamstring) and help win one game Sunday against Oakland.

With Philadelphia's recent record of callousness toward its players, one can only hope the Eagles don't simply hand Akers a cane and a doctor's phone number and tell him to hit the bricks. While the Eagles are saddled with a couple of difficult road games, the Cowboys go to Oakland, come home to play Philly and then get another emotional matchup at home, this one with the Giants. The Redskins, meanwhile, get the perfectly beatable Seahawks at home on Sunday, have two tough road trips to Denver and Kansas City, then get the sorry, no-account 49ers at home. Kansas City is the only elite opponent in the next four.

Of course, it's time to play "Who's Next Week" because it appears for the first time in a while that at least three teams are inseparable. The Eagles are clearly the best team, if healthy. After that, take a pick.

How much is there separating the Cowboys, Redskins and Giants? The Giants and Cowboys have a much better sense of what to do with the ball than the Redskins. But the Redskins' defenders have played well enough over the last 18 games, dating from last season, that they think they can stop anybody -- or at least hold down offenses enough so that each and every week there's a real game.

Until Tom Brady and the Patriots join the NFC East, the Redskins' approach might just be the way to go in a division they might be able to negotiate for a while.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company