The common assumption that, coming out of their bye, the Eagles will be a better team, is sound and true. They are likely to see the return of running back Miles Sanders and right tackle Lane Johnson, defensive tackle Malik Jackson should be fit, and receiver Alshon Jeffery might decide to finally earn some of the $10 million he’ll take home this season.
However, the assumption that the Eagles' inevitable improvement, combined with their lead in the NFC East with that gaudy 3-4-1 record, makes them solid favorites to win the division -- that is unsound. This assumption assumes that the other teams won’t appreciably improve. And this is untrue.
The Giants and Washington can beat the Eagles any time, anywhere. The Giants won’t be favored when the Eagles visit Sunday, and Washington might be the underdog when the Eagles host them in the season finale Jan. 3, and the Eagles still have the best defensive line (barely), the best head coach (barely), and the best quarterback (even this is arguable at the moment). But both of these teams are getting better.
The Giants beat Washington on Sunday, 23-20, in what was a completely watchable contest; perhaps the first in the division this season. Giants quarterback Daniel Jones didn’t commit a turnover for the first time this season and for only the second time in his 22-game career. Thirty-six-year-old backup Alex Smith, who lost two years to injury, relieved Kyle Allen, who got hurt, and Smith threw for 325 yards and touchdown, commanding Washington with the same proficiency that sent him to three Pro Bowls when he played for Andy Reid in Kansas City. The Cowboys lost to the unbeaten, somnambulant Steelers, 24-19, and, with Arena League veteran Garrett Gilbert playing the game of his quarterbacking life, they almost looked good doing it ... until they blew a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead, at home.
None of it wasn’t football as opera, by any stretch. Smith threw two interceptions. Washington turned it over five times. The two teams played each other, and 1-7 beat 2-5. But it was a much, much better show than it projected to be.
While the Eagles sat home on their couches Sunday afternoon, watching the game, making up lies about not having watched the game, and praying Marcus Epps hadn’t infected the franchise with COVID-19, the Giants and Washington played competent football. The best of it came after Allen got leg-whipped by Jabrill Peppers, breaking and dislocating his ankle, a similar injury to the one that cost Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott his season.
Allen’s exit forced Washington coach Ron Rivera to insert Smith, who had appeared in just one game since suffering a spiral and compound fracture to his tibia and fibula in his right leg in November 2018, an injury whose complications almost cost Smith his leg, and his life. His first game back was Oct. 11 against the Rams, in relief of Allen, who hurt his arm briefly and sat the rest of that game, but ultimately retained his job. He shouldn’t have. Smith is better, and that’s bad news for the Eagles.
Worse news: When he makes good decisions, Jones is better than Smith, and Jones made lots of good decisions Sunday.
Remember, Jones came within a dropped pass by Evan Engram from beating the Birds in Philadelphia two weeks ago. And Dwayne Haskins, who has been inactive the past five games, led Washington from a 17-point deficit in the opener to beat the Birds. The gap between the Eagles and the others never was very large. It shrank Sunday.
Both teams blocked. Both teams tackled. Both quarterbacks generally passed to the proper target, and those targets generally caught the ball, then often continued down field, where, almost all of the time, they were solidly tackled. It was real football for a change.
Which makes sense.
Like the Cowboys, both the Giants and Washington hired new head coaches and refreshed their coaching staffs. Unlike the Cowboys, neither the Giants nor Washington hired Mike McCarthy, nor are they run by Jerry Jones, and therein lies the main reason why both franchises are currently better than the 'Boys.
A former Patriots special teams coach with scant qualifications himself, Joe Judge hired highly regarded, 40-year-old Patrick Graham as his defensive coordinator and deposed Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett as his offensive coordinator. Rivera hired former Jaguars and Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio as his defensive coordinator and Scott Turner -- Norv’s kid and Rivera’s OC in Carolina -- as offensive coordinator. Doug Pederson’s staff had a little bit of turnover, but the Eagles entered 2020 with a massive advantage in continuity. The coronavirus lockdown erased preseason games and diminished offseason programs that help new coaching staffs prepare.
Nine weeks into the NFL season, that advantage is gone. The Giants and Washington coaches are realizing what their players can and cannot do. The players understand the offensive and defensive systems and are executing with speed.
For instance, the Giants faked going for it on fourth down in the second half Sunday, then quickly sent out their punt team with 20 seconds on the play clock. Washington was unfazed, and was ready in a flash.
If Doug Pederson ever tried to do that, Carson Wentz would somehow wind up punting.
To Jalen Hurts.
Jones’ maturity won the game in what turned out to be the key plays on the winning offensive possession. First, Jones ate the ball and took a 4-yard sack on second-and-17. What he didn’t do was more important: He didn’t fumble, which he’d done 23 times in his first 21 games, and he didn’t throw an interception while being tackled; he’d thrown 21 interceptions in his first 21 games. On the next play, facing third-and-21 at the Washington 36, Jones recognized a blitz and hit a hot read. The result: a sensible, 12-yard gain, which set up a routine, 42-yard field goal. A sack would have knocked the Giants out of field-goal range. An incompletion would have meant a 54-yard field goal.
This is competent quarterbacking, Philadelphia.
This is how Alex Smith used to make his living. He twice led the NFL in interception percentage and he was in the top 10 a total of seven times, and he hasn’t changed. Smith hit his third read five times during Washington’s first two scoring drives of the second half that cut the lead to 23-13. The defense sufficiently lulled, he hit Terry McLaurin with 68-yard bomb that shaved it to 23-20. Smith threw two late picks to squelch the comeback bid, but for a guy seeing his first extended playing time since Nick Foles was an Eagle, some rust is to be expected.
Granted, Wentz’s only 300-yard game also came against the Giants, and it came thanks to a big second half. But none of these observations are meant to assert that the Eagles aren’t the best team in the NFC East.
They are meant to assert that they aren’t too much better than the rest of the teams -- and, maybe, that the NFC East really is better than anyone thinks.
But only if the Eagles get a lot better, too.