PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Eagles have been derided as the biggest underachievers of the early NFL season. Their sluggish play included a four-game losing streak and produced speculation that Andy Reid’s tenure as coach could be coming to an end. The team’s defensive strategies and post-lockout approach to building its roster were widely questioned.
Yet as the season nears its halfway point, the Eagles seem to have re-emerged as the primary challenger to the first-place New York Giants in the NFC East. That’s what consecutive wins can do for a team in this once-mighty division, which isn’t particularly imposing at the moment but does manage to provide plenty of intrigue.
The Giants, at 5-2, are the division’s only team with a winning record. The Eagles beat the Dallas Cowboys, 34-7, here Sunday night to create a logjam in second place. Those teams are tied with the Washington Redskins with identical 3-4 records. But among the trio chasing the Giants, only the Eagles were feeling good about themselves at the end of Sunday’s play.
“This is a win to be proud about and there should be jubilation throughout the locker room,” said Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. “We acknowledge the fact that we work hard each and every week and so we deserve to take a moment to reflect and enjoy this, but at the same time understand our position. We’ve got game two next week, the start of our new season.”
The NFC East hasn’t quite descended to NFC West-like depths. That division, which sent a winner with a losing record to the playoffs last season, currently has the San Francisco 49ers in first place at 6-1 and three other teams with a combined four wins. But the NFC West is the only other division in the league where just one team has a winning record. So there is little room for NFC East snobbery at the moment.
The Redskins were one of the league’s early-season success stories, racing to a 3-1 start and raising hopes that Coach Mike Shanahan’s second season with the team would be much better than his first. But things have unraveled for the Redskins after three straight losses. Shanahan’s quarterback switch from Rex Grossman to John Beck has failed to get things headed in the right direction, at least so far.
The Cowboys also have their issues. It has been a wildly inconsistent season for quarterback Tony Romo, who has mixed games in which he had costly mistakes down the stretch with outings in which he played hurt and played well. Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field, Romo and the Cowboys simply were outplayed from start to finish. The Eagles scored the game’s first 34 points, and much of the Cowboys’ production on offense came in the fourth quarter after the outcome was no longer in doubt.
“We have to get better,” Romo said. “We have to execute better.”
The Giants have been the division’s most consistent team, overcoming a lengthy list of injuries to key players entering the season and rebounding from a first-game loss to the Redskins to win five of six games since. But they’ve had their moments of vulnerability as well. They lost at home to the Seattle Seahawks, a two-win team, in early October and struggled Sunday before beating the winless Miami Dolphins by three points at MetLife Stadium.
If the Giants stumble, the Eagles may be best positioned to take advantage. They beat the Redskins at FedEx Field before their bye week, and Sunday night’s triumph over the Cowboys gave them a 13-0 record under Reid in games immediately after their bye. The Eagles’ 1-4 start after the “dream team” talk in training camp isn’t exactly forgotten. But the outlook for the team is much more promising now.
“You just keep teaching,” Reid said Sunday night. “That’s what you do. The players have been very willing to work, and that’s all you can ask for as a head coach.”
The Eagles went without a turnover Sunday night in a crisp offensive performance. Vick threw for 279 yards and two touchdowns while tailback LeSean McCoy ran for a career-best 185 yards and two touchdowns.
“You see what happens when you don’t turn the ball over,” Vick said. “We all know what happens.”
The Philadelphia defense shut out the Cowboys until the fourth quarter. It was a dominant all-around performance, the sort of game the Eagles envisioned when they added one standout after another in a shopping spree that followed the NFL lockout. It has taken longer than the Eagles hoped for things to fall into place, but that might be happening now. Suddenly there are possibilities again for the Eagles, although Reid said “there’s a pretty good chance” he’ll remind his players this week that they still have a losing record and little has been accomplished yet.
“The important thing is that you continue to improve each week,” Reid said. “We have plenty of room still to improve.”