EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The view from the bottom of the NFC East looked like this: a sudsy dishwater fog swirled overhead, and the drizzle that fell on the industrial steel-drum architecture of MetLife Stadium, with its cylindrical shape and steep spiral pitch, created the sensation of slipping down a drain.
The NFC East — despite the Dallas Cowboys’ peformance yesterday — is the worst division in pro football at the moment, a tepid sink full of chipped up teams with losing records. To be in last place in this subcategory is therefore to reside at an address called Ville de Loser, and that’s where you can send the New York Giants’ mail. The state of the NFC East is so bad that a good way to move up, as it happened, was not to play at all. By sitting at home idle while the Giants fell to 0-5 with a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cowboys fell to 2-3 against the Denver Broncos, the Redskins (1-3) actually improved their position. Under the circumstances, a bye week was the best possible thing. Why, it was lemonade and bluebirds.
In the first month of the season this miserable quartet of teams has racked up just a 2-11 record against outside opponents. Only the Cowboys’ effort against the Broncos, putting up nearly half a hundred points in a 51-48 loss, rescued its reputation. The Giants and the Eagles, vying to avoid the basement, produced a sloppy stinker of a game in which both teams fulfilled various measures of awfulness before the Eagles won, 36-21. By the time they filtered off the field to scattered boos, there was a distinct stench, of exhausted kerosene fumes from burned out parking lot barbecues, mixed with a dank wetness from the fog, and a pronounced whiff of desperation.
“That’s the game of football, it’s not always a clean pocket, or a clean throw,” Giants quarterback Eli Manning said afterward. “Sometimes you just got to play to the circumstances of the game.” He might as well have been talking about the entire division.
After watching the Giants and the Eagles, what’s clear is that there is a huge opportunity for Washington, if it can simply muster something like competence for the rest of the regular season. The floundering Giants came into Sunday having been outscored 69-7 in the previous two Sundays, and are still grasping for a single victory. The Eagles are hardly more secure: this was only their first victory since winning their season opener over Washington, and it came at a cost, as quarterback Michael Vick left late in the first half with an injured hamstring, replaced by Nick Foles. What’s more, the Eagles’ win was less their own doing than due to a hapless fourth quarter from Manning, who tried too hard to make something happen and instead threw three interceptions.
The game was marred by injuries, pratfalls, and passes drilled into the turf. The Giants, strafed by injuries and mistake prone, were only sporadically effectual. Manning finished 24 of 52 for 334 yards and two touchdowns, but added three penalties for intentional grounding to his three interceptions. Another turnover came from Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, who managed to fumble in the second quarter without even being hit, the ball simply slipping out of his arm cradle.
The Giants’ ineptitude reached a peak with 10 minutes 35 seconds left in the game. The pocket collapsed around Manning and Eagles linebacker Trent Cole raked him across the shoulder, and the ball came out of Manning’s half-cocked hand, spinning crazily into the arms of Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks.
One play later Foles hit tight end Brent Celek with a 25-yard scoring pass, the receiver swanning through the air to gather it in with one arm in the back of the end zone. The extra point gave the Eagles a 29-21 cushion, and then Manning threw a second consecutive interception on the next series — a running attempt to wing the ball to Victor Cruz ending up in the arms of Brandon Boykin.
“You’re scrambling and running around, and sometimes you make plays, and sometimes it hurts you,” Manning said.
Washington is now in the position of benefitting greatly from the misfortunes of others. Manning, normally the classiest quarterback in the division, has now thrown 12 interceptions in five games. And the Giants and the Eagles are two of the absolute worst defenses in the NFL: the Giants had allowed a league-high 146 points coming in, and the Eagles were just a spot behind them, ranked 31st. The Giants gave up points to the Eagles on five out of six drives at one point in the first half.
What this means is that the division is wide open for the team that can pull itself together. The Cowboys are in the most promising position after their most convincing peformance of the season; Tony Romo went toe-to-toe with Peyton Manning and put up more than 500 yards of offense before his fourth-quarter interception at his own 24-yard line doomed them. But the Cowboys remain a perennially uneven outfit and are vulnerable. The team that most quickly finds a way to correct its weaknesses is the one that will rise to the top. Right now, that can be anybody. Except, probably, the Giants.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.