- The Washington Times - Monday, October 10, 2005

Suddenly, the door is open more than a crack in the NFC. That might be why the Redskins were running and rerunning the Denver game tape yesterday, almost until the dinner hour. When the Eagles, conference finalists four years running, get pulverized the way they did by Bill Parcells’ Cowboys over the weekend, it makes a lot of teams want to put in a little overtime.

Heck, the entire NFC East has legitimate playoff prospects. All four clubs have winning records — the Redskins and Giants at 3-1, Dallas and Philadelphia at 3-2 — and there’s a decent chance they’ll all finish with winning records. The last time that happened, incidentally, was in 1935 (when the Lions, Packers, Bears and Cardinals all wound up above .500).

But then, it’s already been an unusual season. I mean, snow in Denver on Oct. 10, just a few hours after the Redskins’ plane departed? Very strange, even for the Mile High City.

But no more so than the Eagles’ continuing soap opera — Terrell Owens’ noisemaking, the team’s decision to release Reluctant Franchise Player Corey Simon and all the rest. Philly hasn’t been nearly the powerhouse people thought it would be, barely scraping past the Raiders two weeks ago and then losing big (33-10) to a Cowboys club it had owned in recent years. The Eagles are no longer helmet and shoulder pads above the rest of the conference. If they don’t bring their A game, they run the risk of getting beat.

That’s how it is in the NFC so far. Five weeks into the season, nobody has even come close to separating himself from the pack. The Falcons, runners-up a year ago, have had their moments, but Michael Vick seems to get injured about as often as Joe Namath did. The Rams, Vikings and Packers, three other ‘04 playoff teams, have taken backward steps — and Mike Martz’s heart problems may keep him off the St. Louis sideline for the rest of the season. The Panthers are hard to get a handle on. Are they the club that out-toughed the Patriots or the one that almost lost to Arizona? And you have to wonder a little about the Bucs, despite their 4-1 start; their impressive rookie running back, “Cadillac” Williams, is already showing signs of tread wear.

As for the Redskins, they’re making history, according to Joe Gibbs — setting records for fingernail nibbling and high blood pressure. Gibbs announced at yesterday’s press conference that his team has now played in six straight games that have been decided by a field goal or less, which “has never been done before,” apparently.

What this means is that, as Coach Joe put it, “anybody can beat us, and we can probably beat anybody else.” Redskins fans are used to the first part of that sentence — “anybody can beat us” — but they’re not used to the second part, at least not in the last decade or so. It’ll be put to the test Nov. 6, when the Eagles come to town; the Redskins haven’t gotten the better of Andy Reid’s club since ‘01. Another good barometer will be the game here three weeks later against Marty Schottenheimer’s Chargers. If the Redskins want to play with the big dogs in the tall grass (or whatever it was Gordon Gekko told Bud Fox in “Wall Street”) they have to defend their own turf against the likes of Philly and San Diego.

Actually, surviving those six division games might be the biggest challenge for the Snydermen. The Giants have the highest-scoring offense in the league (34 points a game), which just shows how much progress Eli Manning has made in his second year as QB. The Cowboys win over the Eagles was probably their most dominant performance since they were winning Super Bowls. If Keyshawn Johnson and Drew Bledsoe don’t turn into the Lone Star version of Terrell Owens and Donovan McNabb after their sideline tiff Sunday, Dallas could go far. And you have to believe Philly, with all its talent and experience, will eventually pull things together. Whoever comes out of the NFC East will be battle-tested, that’s for sure — just like the good old days. But then, we suspected as much when Parcells, Gibbs and Tom Coughlin moved into the neighborhood.

But make no mistake the conference is up for grabs. And at this point there are no fewer than eight teams — the Seahawks included — who conceivably could be playing in Detroit in February.

Gibbs figures the next 12 weeks will be about the same as the last five. “I think you’d have to say we’re going to play a lot of close games,” he said. “Somehow, we’ve got to keep finding ways to win them.”

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