McGinn: No NFC East pushovers for Packers

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) looks to pass against the Dallas Cowboys during an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016, in Arlington, Texas.

Green Bay — Over the next eight weeks the Green Bay Packers will play only one game against their brethren from the NFC North and four games against opponents from the NFC East.

How the Packers fare against the New York Giants on Sunday night and the Dallas Cowboys next Sunday at Lambeau Field and then on the road against the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles in successive games come November could go a long way in determining the outcome of their season.

On Sept. 5, a week before the start of the regular season, an executive in personnel for an AFC team dismissed the four teams of the NFC East as potential Super Bowl contenders. Three weeks later, another NFL personnel director did the same thing.

Their judgments reflected those of pundits who have grown accustomed to NFC East teams, other than the champion Giants of 2011, doing nothing in the playoffs this decade.

When the NFL scheduling formula for 2016 showed the Packers matched against the NFC East and the AFC South, their slate of foes were ranked as the weakest of any team in the league based on last year’s results.

The AFC South posted the worst record (25-39) of the eight divisions in 2015, and the seventh-ranked NFC East (26-38) was almost as bad.

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Sometimes coaches who say schedules can’t be judged based on the previous season are correct. Sometimes they’re wrong.

Last year, the Packers were expected to play a rugged schedule based on 2014 results, and they certainly did. Their 16 opponents who finished with a 136-120 record in 2015 had an almost identical 135-120-1 mark in ’14.

The fact the Packers’ opponents this season went just 117-139 last season played a considerable role in why Green Bay was my pick to win 13 regular-season games and reach the Super Bowl.

Well, it’s four weeks into the 17-week schedule and time to reexamine this supposedly soft schedule for the Packers.

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Almost nothing has changed in the AFC South, which looks as hideous as ever. After ranking eighth, seventh and eighth among the eight divisions the past three seasons, the AFC South presently is tied with the NFC South for the NFL’s worst record at 6-10.

J.J. Watt is done in Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee have shown little improvement behind quarterbacks drafted high the past three years and Indianapolis can’t protect Andrew Luck.

With the Packers already having conquered a nasty trip to sweltering Jacksonville, they’ll be favored to sweep the AFC South.

Nothing has gone according to form, however, in the NFC East, where the Eagles (3-0), Cowboys (3-1), Giants (2-2) and Redskins (2-2) have combined to post the best record (10-5) of any division.

For those of us with some tread wear on the tires, the decline of the NFC East has been startling. In the 10-year stretch from 1986-95, the division of coaches Joe Gibbs, Bill Parcells and Jimmy Johnson won seven Super Bowls. Over the last 20 years, the Giants’ titles in 2007 and ’11 under Tom Coughlin have been it.

In the past six years the NFC East’s victory total of 179 puts it ahead of just one other division, the AFC South, which had 161.

Each of the eight divisions has put two, sometimes even three teams in the playoffs since 2010 except the NFC East. The division hasn’t had one of its members seeded higher than No. 3 in the NFC playoffs since 2008. Remove the Giants’ 4-0 run in 2011 and NFC East teams have won one playoff game in the last six years.

Still, even though coach Mike McCarthy owns a 15-9 record against the NFC East, he’ll never forget the pair of upset defeats in the playoffs administered by the Giants at Lambeau Field. Since divisional play began in 1967 the Packers have gone 4-8 in the postseason against the NFC East.

The Cowboys ousted Green Bay three straight years in the 1990s, and Mike Sherman’s best shot to make the Super Bowl ended in overtime at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field in 2003.

Finally, there are signs that the dormant NFC East might be awakening. So much, of course, rides on whether the two rookie quarterbacks, Carson Wentz in Philadelphia and Dak Prescott in Dallas, are for real.

Wentz, the second overall choice from North Dakota State, suffered a pair of broken ribs in the first exhibition game and seemed destined to sit behind Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel. Then Teddy Bridgewater blew out his knee in Minnesota, Bradford was traded to the Vikings Sept. 3 and coach Doug Pederson chose Wentz to start ahead of Daniel.

New coach. Rookie quarterback. Jim Schwartz, the first-year defensive coordinator, installing a 4-3 scheme after three seasons in a 3-4. A 4-12 finish seemed about right.

The Eagles, who also were undefeated in exhibition games, wore down Cleveland in a hard-fought opener after Pederson, Brett Favre’s backup-buddy in Green Bay for seven years, went for it on fourth-and-4 at the Cleveland 40 midway through the third quarter with the Eagles nursing a 15-10 lead.

Pederson, as likable a player as you could find, has shown nerve converting all four of his fourth-down gambles. Andy Reid gave Pederson his start in coaching but the pupil obviously is his own man.

Monday night at Chicago’s Soldier Field figured to be a probable place for the Eagles to come down to earth. The Eagles survived that test, then slammed the Steelers, 34-3, for by far the most impressive of the NFC East’s 10 victories.

Described by one scout as a “genius” last spring after scoring 40 on the Wonderlic intelligence test, Wentz has been little short of phenomenal with a passer rating of 103.9 and nary a turnover.

“He’s playing with poise and toughness,” a personnel man for an NFC team said. “Not making mistakes, that will win you a lot of games.”

The Eagles have an assortment of capable weapons for Wentz but no standout. They do have a budding deep threat in wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, a high second-round pick in 2015 whom the Titans foolishly didn’t want and then traded to the Eagles in mid-August for a throwaway lineman.

Meanwhile, right tackle Lane Johnson, possibly their best offensive lineman, hasn’t had to begin his anticipated 10-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs but is expected to any time.

The switch to the 4-3 was a better fit for the abilities of Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan, who are four of the Eagles’ top five defensive linemen. Schwartz has the NFL’s No. 1-ranked scoring defense even though his back seven has holes.

“He (Schwartz) is a really good coach,” said one personnel director. “Their personnel’s not impressive at all but they’re coaching them up and they’re not making mistakes.”

The Eagles also have excellent special teams again under coach Dave Fipp. In fact, the NFC East as a whole fared better in the kicking game than any division last year.

Prescott, the eighth quarterback selected in April (fourth round), impressed his new teammates immediately with his composure, acute leadership and toughness. At times he almost willed Mississippi State to victory, and after Tony Romo went down with a back injury Aug. 25 the transition has been astonishingly smooth.

Unlike Wentz, who has fumbled three times, Prescott hasn’t fumbled once or thrown a pick. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan helped Daunte Culpepper have his best years in Minnesota, too.

“I give them credit,” said one scout. “They’re doing what he does and running the ball. They don’t try to do anything else.”

Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott entered the week leading the league in carries (94) and rushing yards (412). Despite the loss of left guard La’el Collins (toe) for the season, Ronald Leary has been a suitable replacement on possibly the NFL’s best line.

Linebacker Sean Lee probably is the closest thing defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has to an elite player. Jerry Jones’ failed dalliances with Greg Hardy and second-round pick Randy Gregory have left the pass rush on empty. Returning from suspension, end DeMarcus Lawrence represents the last legitimate chance to generate pressure without blitzing.

Eli Manning ranks 18th in passer rating, trailing Wentz (sixth), Prescott (13th) and Washington’s Kirk Cousins (16th). That’s a fitting place for Manning because in some ways he’s holding the Giants back.

New York has a terrific set of wide receivers, a capable receiving tight end, a solid offensive line and three unheralded running backs with considerable ability.

But, on Monday night in Minnesota, Manning was just awful. Protected about as well as could be expected given the opponent and venue, Manning cowered in the pocket, quit on plays to avoid getting hit and didn’t give Odell Beckham Jr. and others much chance to make plays.

The Giants’ rebuilt front four is impressive, and if the secondary hadn’t been decimated by injury there’s a cluster of six players that should be competitive most weeks.

Yet, if Manning doesn’t start handling pressure with more bravery, the Giants aren’t going anywhere.

Washington might have ranked as the surprise team in the NFL a year ago before getting pummeled in the playoffs by the Packers, 35-18. Its division title was due in large part to Cousins, a marginal spot starter from 2012-14 who forged a Pro Bowl-deserving season.

A deep, dangerous corps of wide receivers and tight ends should enable Washington to outscore some teams. Matt Jones is a bottom-of-the-barrel featured back, and the line is so-so.

On defense, Washington has weaknesses at all three levels. In the last two games, starting safeties DeAngelo Hall and David Bruton were lost for the season. Chris Baker is the team’s best defensive lineman.

“They’ve got some talent here and there in spots (on offense),” one scout said. “But their defense is not impressive at all.”

Scot McCloughan, the second-year general manager, has helped a forlorn franchise regain a degree of respectability. Clearly, he still has a long way to go.

That’s the way it looks for the NFC East nearing the quarter mark of the season. The race for the top is wide open. Any of the four teams could emerge.

The takeaway for the Packers one month in is there probably won’t be any pushovers out of the NFC East this season.

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