It's still early, but Eagles can't afford to stumble against Skins
Is it too early for a must-win game? Not if you're Andy Reid and the Eagles, who need to beat the surging Redskins on Sunday to keep pace in the highly competitive NFC East, writes John Clayton.
Last Sunday in Dallas, Jason Campbell and the Redskins made a statement.
While Terrell Owens said he felt disrespected by having only 17 balls thrown in his direction, the Redskins concentrated on a hard-fought, 26-24 victory. Campbell continues to grow physically and mentally into a top-flight quarterback. Jim Zorn drew great reviews for his game plans and sideline contributions. And, at 3-1 and on a three-game winning streak, the Redskins joined the list of four potential playoff teams in the NFC East.
Now the Eagles hope to make a statement when they host the surging Skins on Sunday. Philadelphia, which fell to 2-2 after a tough loss in Chicago, can't afford to lose distance in the most competitive division in football. Though coach Andy Reid doesn't want to say it publicly, this is a must-win game for the Eagles.
Some of the Eagles' red-zone problems against the Bears were understandable. Brian Westbrook was out with an ankle injury. Tight end L.J. Smith was also hurt, and the offensive line was without its best blocker, Pro Bowl guard Shawn Andrews, who has back problems. Smith is expected to return this weekend; Westbrook and Andrews will likely be game-time decisions.
Following Sunday's showdown in Philadelphia, the NFC East race is going to turn into a sprint. A third of the 12 divisional games will be in the books, and the rivalries go on hiatus until the Cowboys meet the Giants on Nov. 2.
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The out-of-division schedule should allow all four teams to accumulate victories. The Redskins, for example, play the Rams, Browns and Lions after the Eagles. Because the NFC East plays the NFC West and AFC North this season, each NFC East team has a realistic chance of going 6-2 in those games.
Watching the Cowboys struggle in their home loss to the Redskins and how well the Eagles played against the Cowboys on the road in Week 2, it's hard to fathom that any NFC East team is going 5-1 in the division. A couple might go 4-2, but the key is coming out with at least a 3-3 divisional record.
The Redskins will be the first team to finish half of their NFC East games by Sunday, and two of their toughest road games -- Dallas and Philadelphia -- will be behind them. Because of their upset victory at Dallas, the Redskins aren't facing the pressure of a must-win game on Sunday. All the pressure falls on Philly.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers at Jacksonville Jaguars: So this is what it's like to play a .598 schedule. Pittsburgh's offense is missing its two top running backs, Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall. Kendall Simmons, one of the Steelers' best offensive lineman, is out for the season after blowing out an Achilles tendon. And it's only Week 5.
Now the Steelers have to travel to Jacksonville to take on a team that has beaten them four straight times. Ben Roethlisberger, battling a sprained right shoulder, hopes to spark Pittsburgh's offense with the no-huddle. Roethlisberger is almost automatic when he has a running game. He's lost only four games in which he's thrown 25 or fewer passes. When he's asked to throw 26 or more, his record drops to 10-14. The Jaguars won't worry about the Steelers' banged-up running game and will concentrate on stopping Big Ben through the air.
2. Tennessee Titans at Baltimore Ravens: In a passing league, the Titans and Ravens are trying to win by playing power football. These teams boast two of the most physical defenses in football. Those who love old-school football should TiVo this one.What also makes this game special is the rivalry between these teams. Back in the Steve McNair days, Titans players took offense to former Ravens coach Brian Billick's comments after a game, and the Ravens fumed after the Titans played those comments on the video scoreboard prior to a playoff game. Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who is off to a phenomenal start this season, believes one of his hard hits altered the career of Titans great Eddie George.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Denver Broncos: Two weeks ago, Bucs QB Brian Griese had the satisfaction of beating a Bears team that traded him by throwing 67 passes without a sack against them. Now, Griese has a chance to avenge the head coach who drafted him and then gave up on him. Denver's Mike Shanahan had great faith in Griese, who had the impossible job of replacing John Elway. In the end, Shanahan felt Griese was a 60 percent thrower but a 50 percent winner, and he moved on to Jake Plummer.Griese is 3-0 as a starter since replacing Jeff Garcia, but his numbers have started to drop in the past couple of weeks. The good news for him is that he's playing a Broncos defense that made the Chiefs look legitimate in Week 4.
The Saints' defense continues to fight through injuries, but the defensive line came on last week against the 49ers. Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma will have the biggest challenge in this game. It will be his job to keep New Orleans' defenders focused on bringing Peterson to the ground.
5. Seattle Seahawks at N.Y. Giants: The Seahawks went through the first three weeks of the season down six receivers because of injuries. The Giants, off to a 3-0 start, had enough depth at wide receiver to suspend Plaxico Burress for this game after he missed a practice. The Seahawks have barely had enough receivers to get through practices.
The good news for Seattle is the bye week allowed Bobby Engram and Deion Branch to return to the lineup for the first time this year. The problem for the Seahawks is eternal: playing cross-country games. Their record has been horrible in those games.
6. Buffalo Bills at Arizona Cardinals: So much for the idea of staying east. The Cardinals stayed in Washington, D.C., between losses to the Redskins and Jets. All they have to show for it is a bag full of hotel pens and wounded pride. They also may have lost one of their best players. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin has a fractured sinus and his status for Sunday's game against the Bills is unknown.The next two weeks are critical for the Cardinals. They have tough home games against the Bills and Cowboys. Quarterback Kurt Warner committed six turnovers last week against the Jets. He'll have to be more careful, and the offensive line needs to give Warner more time to throw. The Bills are on a roll. Quarterback Trent Edwards continues to thrive in Turk Schonert's offense. The Bills' defense draws great praise for its aggressiveness and creativity.
7. Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans: The bye week allowed the Colts' offensive line to get a little healthier. Left tackle Tony Ugoh should be back in the starting lineup and center Jeff Saturday is set to play despite his knee problems. Peyton Manning needed the break to concentrate on improving his timing with the receivers, so Indianapolis' offense should be fine.What wasn't able to heal during the bye week was the Colts' defense. Safety Bob Sanders is still out and the Colts are undersized and understaffed at defensive tackle. The 0-3 Texans are feeling the heat. Expect Houston to focus on running the ball until the Colts prove they can stop it.
8. New England Patriots at San Francisco 49ers: Little changed for the Patriots during the bye week. Tom Brady remains out for the season and the Patriots have to function in tight, low-scoring games in which their defense can't afford to give up more than 17 points a game.This is the beginning of two two-game West Coast road trips for the Patriots, and this could be a dangerous game. Patriots coach Bill Belichick knows 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz from their battles when Martz was with the Rams, and he knows the 49ers will try to attack cornerbacks Ellis Hobbs and Deltha O'Neal. The Patriots play the Chargers in Week 6, so they will stay on the West Coast to avoid travel fatigue. Because they are a veteran team, the Patriots should handle the long trip better than the Cardinals, but it's still a distraction to pull away from family and friends for more than a week.
Offensive line problems have left 49ers QB J.T. O'Sullivan vulnerable to the blitz, so Belichick will try to make O'Sullivan as uncomfortable as possible.
9. Cincinnati Bengals at Dallas Cowboys: Bengals WR Chad Johnson promises to kiss the Texas Stadium star if he scores a touchdown. The biggest question is whether he will score. The Bengals' offense has been a disaster, and the 0-4 Bengals appear headed for a disastrous season.The Cowboys should bounce back from a tough 26-24 loss to the Redskins that they felt they should have won. The Bengals have struggled pressuring quarterbacks, so Tony Romo should have time to get T.O. more involved in the offense, if that is humanly possible. Owens wasn't satisfied with 17 balls thrown in his direction last week. To satisfy him, maybe the Cowboys need to bring back that old Randy Moss ratio and target 40 percent of their offensive plays in his direction.
10. San Diego Chargers at Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins had a bye week following their upset win over the Patriots, and now they want see if they can upset the Chargers at home. Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter was right, saying Matt Cassel wasn't Tom Brady and justified it by sacking Cassel three times. Porter better watch out and not say Philip Rivers isn't Dan Fouts because Rivers could burn the Dolphins' defense.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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