From where I sit in my Baltimore-area home, the cities of Washington and Philadelphia are about equidistant, about an hour each way. And those cities’ NFL franchises, the Redskins and Eagles, opened the season with completely different expectations and have seen completely different results through the first four games. Philadelphia, with Super Bowl hopes running high after some productive free agent signings, have lost three straight and are 1-3. Washington, with only one NFC East title in the last seventeen years and coming off the latest of their many turmoil-ridden offseasons, were an easy call for last place. The ‘Skins are 3-1 and leading the way as the regular season concludes its first quarter.
Washington has played disciplined football so far this year, with penalties only hurting them in a narrow escape in St. Louis last week. They’ve gotten more balance in the passing game. What used to be a game plan of throw a quick out to Santana Moss and hope he could break a tackle, has broadened to include tight end Fred Davis and receiver Jabar Gaffney as regular targets. Defensively, they’ve toughened up and stopped the run, with only Dallas exceeding the 100-yard mark as a team. Not coincidentally, the Cowboy game was the one the ‘Skins lost.
Ultimately, a Mike Shanahan team is going to rise and fall on its own ability to run the football and here Washington is showing promise, while still needing improvement. Ryan Torain had a big 135-yard game against St. Louis to key the win, and Tim Hightower ran well in a Week 2 victory over Arizona. But they struggled to run against the Giants and Cowboys. The former was the season-opener and can be forgiven, since it’s normal for an offensive line to take some time to get its run-blocking rhythm together. The failure to run it at Dallas meant the Redskins had no way to ease the pressure of a blitzing linebacker like Demarcus Ware. Making this facet of their game consistent will ultimately define whether Washington stays in contention all year, and Shanahan’s track record inspires confidence for those of us who reside in Redskin Nation.
Philadelphia’s a lot tougher to put a finger on. Their Week 3 loss to the Giants can be written off because Michael Vick got hurt, although it does underscore how dependent the Eagles are on a quarterback who doesn’t have the greatest durability track record. Philly’s ran the ball well with LeSean McCoy, although the one big exception to that was last week, and the consequence was that they bogged down and had to settle for five field goal attempts, making only three and losing by one to San Francisco. As long as Vick stays healthy, I think the Eagles are going to make a run, as the two losses he’s been healthy for have been come down to the wire and that will likely even out. But they aren’t defending the run consistently and until that changes, it’s tough to really control tempo and leaves Andy Reid’s team vulnerable to further upsets akin to what happened last week.
Looking ahead, the Redskins have a bye this week, while the Eagles visit Buffalo. Then the NFC East foes hook up in Lincoln Financial on October 16. Last year’s game in Philadelphia was historic because Donovan McNabb returned home. The return game in FedEx was a Michael Vick Fantasy League show, as he Eagles piled up 59 points. The game on the 16th won’t have any of that, but it’s a lot more likely to prove to be a good solid football game with major implications for the NFC East race.
WISCONSIN’S NATIONAL TITLE HOPES
Wisconsin has been in the Top 10 since the season began and with Saturday night’s devastating 48-17 win over Nebraska it was only logical that ABC’s Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit would start looking ahead and speculating about the Badgers’ chances of being in New Orleans come January 9 when the national championship is settled. The Musburger-Herbstreit conversation focused primarily on what would need to happen nationwide for that to happen, but let’s not get the cart ahead of the horse. Is this UW team ready to go the distance?
I went to my first college football game in 1980 at Camp Randall and have been following the Badgers ever since and the last two years have been the most dominant offensive teams I’ve ever seen come out of Madison. The addition of Russell Wilson has given a new dimension to what’s already a powerful running game and Wilson’s flawless performance Saturday night will get him at the forefront of the Heisman conversation. But I’m not yet sold that this is a national championship defense. The Cornhuskers ran the ball effectively, producing 159 yards on the ground and this game had a back-and-forth quality to it before Taylor Martinez imploded and threw three interceptions that blew the game open and took Nebraska out of its running game. Let’s also keep in mind that UNLV ran the ball very well on Wisconsin and you have evidence of a trend.
But an explosive offense and defense that’s still at least competent is enough to steamroll shaky teams and the Leaders Division of the Big Ten where UW resides isn’t looking too swift so far. Penn State, my preseason choice to win the conference, is bumbling about trying to find itself. Ohio State looks worse than even the most pessimistic Columbus observers might have thought. Illinois is 5-0, but going to the wire time after time. Purdue and Indiana are the other members of this division. Wisconsin would have to play a game monstrously below their norm to lose to any of these teams—as a fan I’m paranoid enough to see it happening. As an analyst I’d be chalking any other team in the country into their conference championship game. If Wisconsin doesn’t beat themselves, the danger spots would be road trip to Michigan State and then a Big Ten Championship game date. The opponent here would presumably be the Huskers, Spartans or Michigan. None would be easy, but as things stand now, Wisconsin would be anywhere from a 7-10 point favorite against any of the above.
Let’s say Wisconsin defends the run well enough to win out and get to 13-0. What happens there? You can concede one championship game spot to the SEC, with LSU-Alabama controlling the pathway. The Big 12 champ, if unbeaten, would go in ahead of Wisconsin, as is appropriate given the Badgers soft non-conference schedule. But is Oklahoma going to survive Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Baylor, among others? I don’t see an 12-0 team coming out of this league. That leaves the teams from the west, Stanford and Boise State. The Cardinal has a long road ahead of them, including a game with Oregon and there’s nothing saying Wisconsin can’t win a vote over Andrew Luck & Co (although the most likely option right now is that these two programs meet in the Rose Bowl. Wilson vs. Luck on New Year’s Day isn’t bad as far as consolation prizes go). And Boise’s only chance to crash the party is if the other BCS teams all have one loss?
So the bottom line? Wisconsin’s got a real chance at getting to New Orleans this January. The national picture likely takes care of itself and the schedule is right. That means it’s time to buckle down and stop the run and make sure business gets taken care of.