Saturday, October 22, 2011

Week 7 Coin Toss: Niners Heads, NFC East Tails

Austen: The Giants don't need a miracle to
win their division. They just need the rest
of it to keep playing mediocre football.
Stally: Austen, please help me (and everyone) make sense of the jumble we have in the NFC East.  Here's what we got: Giants 4-2, Redskins 3-2, Cowboys 2-3, Eagles 2-4. I feel like all these teams are mediocre to good, but none are great and none are garbage.  They could all finish in a 9-7 to 7-9 window.

Who will win this division and what will the finishing order and records look like?  Also of importance: there aren't too many powerhouses emerging in the NFC.  What do you think it will take to get the Wild Card and what are the chances two of these NFC East teams sneak in?  After Super Bowl predictions for the Cowboys and Eagles in the past two seasons, what expectations would you have for the division in the postseason?

Austen: Plain and simple, the Giants will win this division. If the Giants had not blown the end of the game against the Seahawks, they would be 5-1. While maybe you could say that about a few other teams in this division, but the Giants are playing better football than any other team in this division, which looks worse than it has in years. The Giants have been hit by the injury bug worse than any other team in the NFL, and it is one of the worst rash of injuries I have ever seen. Yet they are shockingly 4-2. Their defense is going to get a lot better once some of their top players come back from injuries, and it will be just in time for the Giants' schedule to toughen up. I look for them to finally finish out a season strong and win 9-10 games, which should be enough to win this surprisingly weak division.

Let's go over the rest of these teams who are quickly losing relevance in the playoff picture. The Cowboys are still very talented and play well outside of the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they are forced every week to play four quarters and they always blow it in the end of games one way or another. The NFL is too talented top to bottom to play this way every week so they are going to continue to struggle winning games, unless the NFL cuts games to three quarters. I see them winning eight games and again disappointing their fans.

The Eagles prevailed in a must-win game against the Redskins. However, considering Rex Grossman handed them four interceptions, they should have won that game by a lot more than seven points. The Eagles' explosive offense continues to struggle putting up points, and that is going to cost them once they start playing decent teams with decent quarterbacks. They need to find a way to play better on both offense and defense, and that starts with coaching. I do not see them getting significantly better so I see them winning around 7-8 games and being out of the playoffs sooner rather than later.

The Redskins look to be back in the bottom of this division once again after having to bench Grossman. How many teams can you think of that have made the playoffs after benching their starting quarterback in the middle of the season? I cannot think of one. When it is all said and done, I see the Redskins having a top-10 pick in the 2012 NFL draft and Mike Shanahan making a strong push to land Andrew Luck.

Stally: The only thing luckier than
this being ruled a dead ball is the
Giants' early season schedule. (Getty)
Stally: Wow!  You ignored one huge factor!  The Giants aren't any good!  You said you were shocked they're 4-2 and even hinted they could be 5-1.  If only they didn't lose to the Seahawks, who are 2-3 and won by 11 for just their fifth road win in the last four years!  They also benefitted from a lucky call to pull out a win against 1-4 Arizona and picked up another W against 0-5 St. Louis.  You described the Redskins as bad, but the Giants lost to them by 14 in a game that they never seemed to have a chance to win. 

Dallas is the best team in the division.  If you want to make excuses for losses, look at the 14-point crumble to the Jets and the 27-3 lead they blew against the Lions.  They should have won those games and would have been 4-1 if they had.  When the play three good quarters, they still have the potential to play four once they figure it out!  It's not like the Eagles, where there's obviously something wrong with the way the team is playing in general.  The only remaining loss was last week against the Patriots.  I was there and always felt New England would find a way to win the game, but the Cowboys were a good team that challenged the Pats for 60 minutes.

Dallas has games left against St. Louis, Seattle, Miami, Arizona and Tampa Bay.  Meanwhile, the Giants do get Miami, but also play at New England, at San Francisco, vs. Philadelphia, at New Orleans, vs. Green Bay and the Jets. reported on Bill Simmons' B.S. Report that the Giants current strength of schedule is 32nd, their remaining strength of schedule is first!

The two teams will also play each other twice.  Dallas is the better team, they have the easier schedule, and assuming they take care of the Rams at home this week, they're just one game back of the Giants.  I agree that nine-ten wins will win the division, I disagree it will be the Giants over Dallas.

Go ahead!  Look at the Giants schedule, I'm projecting they finish 7-9, 8-8 if you're generous.  Dallas will go 9-7, 10-6 if you're generous.  That's not close and won't come down to the wire.

If the Philadelphia Eagles figure it out, they could also go 10-6.  That's probably too generous, but I'll go on record right now as saying the Eagles will win more games than the Giants.  The one area we agree is that the Redskins don't have what it takes.  I'll project them at 6-10, 7-9 would be the generous lean.  So, my final standings: Dallas 10-6, Philadelphia 9-7, New York 7-9, Washington 6-10.

To expand on my question in terms of playoffs: the Cowboys pose a legitimate threat come playoff time, and, if the Eagles got hot enough to make it, they would as well.  No, there won't be a wild card unless Dallas and Philadelphia both max out their wins at 10, which I don't see happening as neither has been consistent enough to expect both to suddenly turn on the light swtich.

Austen: I'll stick with the team that is winning games and not blowing enormous leads like the rest of this division. Also, the Giants will get better once they get back a lot of their starters on defense. You are forgetting how good this Giants' defense can be and how well they run the football. Hakeem Nicks is one of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL and Eli Manning is still a top 10 quarterback in my mind. They are the best team in the division.

Now on to my question, how are the 49ers so good this season? What are they doing differently from last season when you worked for the organization? I understand how this offense has become more effective, since they have a young and very talent offensive line and when Frank Gore is healthy, he is a top 5 running back in the NFL. Yet it is the defense that is really playing lights out right now and has made the difference on this team. How did this defense become so much better after losing Pro Bowlers Aubrayo Franklin and Nate Clements, along with other free agents? This team has already won more games than I expected them to win all season. Obviously I am more surprised about the play of this team more than any other. One year after expecting them to win their terrible NFC West division, they are looking to lock up their division about half way through the 2011 season. What has changed this team?

Stally: Honestly, not much (but that won't stop me from writing a lot).  This is still much of the same team that was expected to go 11-5 and win the division last year.  The biggest changes have come off the field in the form of Head Coach Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke.

Let's get this out of the way so we can accept my respect and move on: I liked Mike Singletary a lot.  He was a great person and he worked hard every day to be the best coach and person he could.  Unfortunately, when it came to head coaching, he wasn't cerebral enough to take any part in the offense and his rigid way of thinking didn't seem to connect with a young group of players the way it needed to for the team to be successful.  He's now back to coaching linebackers (in Minnesota), and the All-Pro play of former student Patrick Willis proves that he deserves to have some sort of role as a mentor in the NFL, even if not as a Head Coach.

I first noticed the change in Niner-land last January when the paint that said "Singletary" on the parking spot by the door was scraped off and the black Escalade of Coach Sing rolled away forever to be replaced by the old, oversized navy blue Chevy truck of Harbaugh that looked like something out of the old "Like a Rock" commercials.  The car said at all: Harbaugh's a football man that's here simply to coach football.  He knows what's important and what's not, and, unlike most of the rides in the Niners' private lot, he knows that a fancy car isn't important to the team's success.  He's changed the team's attitude and he's managed to get the most out of a team that already had this potential in it.

The other area where there's been a significant improvement has been in the GM's office.  To put it simply: they have someone in there now.  In March of 2010, GM Scot McCloughan left the team in an odd parting of ways that was never really explained publicly.  That left a vacancy at the top of player personnel, and the role was assumed by VP of Player Personnel, Trent Baalke, although it did not entail a promotion to GM.

Baalke did an admirable job in the role and pieced together a draft in just a month.  It included two picks to shore up a shaky offensive line in young, unpolished, but very talented man-child tackle Anthony Davis and all-play, no-talk guard Mike Iupati (who was the team's consensus Rookie of the Year around the office).  He also stole in the third round with linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who pushed former Pro Bowler Takeo Spikes for time as a rookie and replaced his vacancy this season.  He also kicked started the special teams by trading with Miami for Ted Ginn Jr.

However, despite his control over player personnel, Baalke was not the General Manager, so he didn't have the same free reign that you'd expect from someone with his responsibilities.  President/CEO Jed York said to the press immediately after letting go of Singletary that the loss of McCloughan and lack of a GM really hurt the 2010 season and that replacing the vacancy was the number one priority.  After a short search, Baalke was rewarded for his one year audition.  He hired Harbaugh shortly afterward and again seemed to fair well in the draft with picks like LB Aldon Smith and RB Kendall Hunter.

It's a long answer, but the Harbaugh/Baalke pairing that we worked feverishly to promote as the winning tandem during January's press conference has lived up to its billing.  Even after I left the team, I knew this would happen down the road, I just didn't expect six weeks to be enough time for Harbaugh to get everyone on board!  I'd recommend we get used to seeing this team at the top of the NFC West, especially since the rest of the division really looks like a mess.  We also must be careful not to disregard them as a NFC power once Baalke's additions come of age under Harbaugh's tutelage, which seems to be a quicker process than anticipated.

Austen: Like I said before, I have not at all been surprised by the strong play of the offense because I knew they had the talent there to be successful, but I had no faith in their defense, especially their secondary. Considering they are starting 30 year old Carlos Rogers, who had never had more than 2 interceptions in a season before this year, and Tarell Brown, who is very inexperienced with only 5 starts coming into this season, I thought they were going to get burned through the air over and over, much like they were last season. Since the NFL has become a passing league, I thought their lack of depth at cornerback would limit their ability to hang in with most teams. Their safety play has been incredible and these two corners have really been impressive. Aldon Smith, who I was very high on during the draft, looks like the real deal and has created a strong pass rush that this defense has lacked in recent years. This team looks to have a lot more talent than anyone thought. I hope the 49ers are getting back into their groove because they are a fun team to watch.

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