By Ernie Palladino
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Don’t look now, but the NFC East is all set up for the Giants to win it.
Even in their current state — with a pair of “hamstrung” receivers in Odell Beckham and Rueben Randle, minus pass-rush star Jason Pierre-Paul, and a dead-last pass defense that is giving coordinator Steve Spagnuolo fits at this moment, they sat atop the division at 3-2 after Larry Donnell’s miracle catch beat the 49ers on Sunday.
While it’s true that Dallas, Philadelphia, and Washington all lurk just a game behind, the Giants have good reason to believe that this first-place stuff could become a permanent thing, especially if Eli Manning watches his Ps and Qs in the red zone and the pass rush improves just a little from its No. 29 ranking.
Of course, it’s still a little early to pencil in the Giants for their first division title since the Super Bowl ride of 2011 — coincidentally their last playoff season. And really, who but a die-hard Mets hater would turn his attention there, considering what Terry Collins’ gritty club is up to in the NLDS?
But here’s the thing. The way the NFC East stacks up, the Giants have suddenly taken on top-dog status. By simple virtue of their quarterback’s skills and durability, they appear to be the class of the division.
It’s not a perfect situation. They hardly compare to New England or, within their conference, Green Bay. Manning is neither Tom Brady nor Aaron Rodgers. Never really was.
But in the NFC East, he doesn’t have to be. All he has to be is the best quarterback in the division, a rather simple job considering Sam Bradford, Brandon Weeden, and Kirk Cousins are muddling along in Philadelphia, Dallas, and Washington, respectively.
Ages ago, like last month, Dallas was the favorite to win it. Then Tony Romo’s collarbone went snap a week after Dez Bryant’s foot went pop. In the span of two games, Dallas went from uncrowned king to Weeden and now, probably, to Matt Cassel. Unless the Cowboys’ defense keeps games close enough for either of these accidental starters to win a dink-and-dunk contest, one might as well relegate Dallas to the temperature control room in JerryWorld.
Washington remains the same mess that has finished last six of the last seven seasons. The Redskins excel when Cousins plays mistake-free, but they’re not good enough to make up for his mistakes. They’re 0-3 so far when he has thrown an interception, most recently a pick-6 that ended last week’s Atlanta game in overtime. The Redskins will have their moments, but Dan Snyder’s dysfunctional ownership will always keep them from becoming a true divisional threat.
The Giants already have a win over the Redskins, and they’ll have a chance to get a leg up on a tiebreaker with the Eagles on Monday night in Philly. Bradford, a former No. 1 overall pick by the Rams whose past injuries have cut deeply into his experience, only just started to look sharp since the second half of last week‘s 39-17 win over the hapless Saints. But that was after a first half in which he threw two picks in the end zone.
He has yet to evidence any consistency, though the Giants’ faulty pass coverage could open the way for that.
Other factors could undermine the Giants at this point. The defense is a concern, both in terms of pass rush and coverage. The Giants simply cannot continue to allow late-game lightning strikes like the one Romo engineered in the Kickoff Weekend loss, or the one Colin Kaepernick came close to beating them with Sunday.
Even still, much of NFL success remains seated in quarterback play. In that area, Manning stands far above his divisional brethren, even as he produces the occasional head-scratcher. As long as he doesn’t revert to his 27-interception form of 2013, the Giants will have a chance in every game.
Unless the rest of the division’s quarterbacks transform drastically, Manning and the Giants should remain on top, looking down.