- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2008

If you can’t jump to conclusions after three weeks of the NFL season, when can you jump to conclusions? So allow me to suggest that the NFC East might be even better than we thought - and we thought pretty highly of it to begin with, inasmuch as it sent three teams to the playoffs last year.

The Eagles’ nine-sack smothering of the Steelers on Sunday, followed by Cowboys‘ equally decisive victory at Green Bay, left the division standings looking like this:

Cowboys and Giants: 3-0.

Redskins and Eagles: 2-1.

My kingdom for a breather!

Just out of curiosity, I broke out the record books and searched for other instances of a division being a collective 10-2 after three weeks (or, in the case of a five-team division, the top four teams being 10-2). The answer: It’s happened only one other time in the last 25 years - in the AFC West in 1998. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but one of those teams, the Broncos, went on to win the Super Bowl.

In these first few weeks of the 2008 season, we seem to be in the midst of a sea change. The Patriots have lost their leader, Tom Brady, and just got demolished - at home - by the previously dreadful Dolphins. The Colts, generally fast starters, are 1-2 and lucky not to be 0-3. Meanwhile, the Chargers, who aren’t lucky, dropped their first two (to the Panthers on a last-play touchdown and to the Broncos on Ed Hochuli’s Inadvertent Exhaling). Throw in the aforementioned egg laid by Ben Roethlisberger and Co. in Philadelphia, and we have the AFC, the glamour conference in recent years, looking decidedly underwhelming.

Granted, Brady will be back with a rebuilt knee next season, and Manning’s offensive line issues figure to get straightened out in due course. But it might not matter if the clubs in the NFC East continue their upward climb. The Giants did, after all, upset the Pats in the Super Bowl last February, and they could turn out to be the third-best team in the division this year behind the Cowboys and Eagles.

“It’s going to take a lot of wins to accomplish our goals,” Jason Campbell said Monday. “There’s not much separating the teams [in the NFC]. You look at a team like Arizona - where they were five years ago and where they are now. They’re a team you have to deal with.”

Yes, even the Cardinals can no longer be taken for granted, as they’ve shown in their two visits to Washington the past two seasons. Last season the Redskins had to sweat out a field goal try in the final seconds (Neil Rackers’ 55-yarder drifted wide), and Sunday they were tied with the Cards going into the fourth quarter.

But the NFC East is where it’s at. What’s more, there’s no reason to think this is a short-term thing. Eli Manning just won his first Super Bowl, and he’s only 27. Tony Romo is a low-mileage 28. Campbell, with zero interceptions in three games, might be ready to have his breakthrough year at 26. Sure, Donovan McNabb is closer to the end than the beginning, but the Eagles are hardly an old team, and Andy Reid has Kevin Kolb warming up in the bullpen.

It’s more than just quarterbacks, though. It’s also stadiums and franchise value. The Cowboys and Giants will soon have new places to play, and the Redskins and Eagles already have new (or relatively new) ones. This gives them even more money to spend on up-front bonuses, coaching and scouting staffs and every state-of-the-art thingamajig imaginable.

In the latest Forbes rankings, Dallas ($1.612 billion), Washington ($1.538B), New York ($1.178B) and Philadelphia ($1.116B) were first, second, fourth and seventh in the league in franchise value. Yeah, it’s a hard salary cap, but it’s a lot harder when your franchise doesn’t have 10,000 club seats or isn’t worth a billion dollars.

“We’re only three weeks into this thing,” Redskins center Casey Rabach said, “but we’re going to have to win our nondivision games for sure - and then try to win a few games in our division, at least.”

It’s hard to imagine the Redskins sneaking into the playoffs again with a 9-7 record. The way the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants are playing, even 10 wins might not be enough. The nondivision games Rabach was referring to, though, seem less daunting in Week 4 than they did back in training camp. The Rams, Browns, Lions and Bengals are all 0-3, the Ravens have hitched their wagon to a rookie quarterback, the 49ers are a work in progress and the Steelers and Seahawks don’t exactly inspire fear right now.

Which prompted this comment from Pete Kendall: “It’s great water-cooler talk and drive-time radio talk, but it doesn’t mean much in this locker room. Look, it’s a long season. Who knows what it’s going to take to win the division or make the playoffs? Injuries, momentum, fluke plays - there’s a lot that can happen between the start of Week 4 and the end of Week 17.”

This much seems certain, though: Whatever happens, the NFC East will be right in the middle of it.

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