What we learned (and didn’t) in Week 4: How NFC East will be decided


All right, Philadelphia Eagles. I’m officially interested.

Carson Wentz? Doug Pederson? Whoever the analytics guy is who tells Pederson when to go for it on fourth down? Color me intrigued. The Eagles’ victory on Sunday against the Chargers in Los Angeles has them in position for a potentially very interesting season, because it put a very important logistical checkmark in their ledger. If you believe — as I do — that this year’s NFC East race will come down to which teams handle the grueling travel schedules the best, then the Eagles winning in L.A. matters.

Look, the Chargers-in-L.A. jokes are fine. Keep ’em up. This is an NFL team playing in a tiny soccer stadium in a town that didn’t want it there — just close enough to its former home to cruelly tease the few fans they did have — and it will be waiting three years just to be the Rams’ kid brother in the real Los Angeles stadium, once Philip Rivers is gone. It’s a highly public example of corporate greed backfiring, and laughing at a greedy corporation when its greed backfires is a perfectly healthy outlet for today’s disaffected American sports fan.

But regardless of how many more Eagles fans than Chargers fans there were in the seats on Sunday, the Eagles still had to get to L.A. And the exhaustion and inconvenience that come with long flights are consistently underrated aspects of the NFL strength-of-schedule discussions. This is stuff the players feel, especially as the year goes along.

So the Eagles are 3-1 and leading the NFC East. Perhaps as important, they have cleared two of their tough-looking road trips and gone 1-1 in them — losing at Kansas City in Week 2 and winning in L.A. in Week 4.

One of the things I’m tracking this season is the NFC East’s rough travel season. All four teams have tough games outside of their time zones, playing teams in both the NFC West and the AFC West. This isn’t a strict apples-to-apples comparison, of course, because trips to places such as Denver and L.A. are shorter for the Cowboys than they are for Dallas’ East Coast rivals, but the flip side is that all of Dallas’ division road games are outside of their time zone.

The Eagles don’t leave their time zone again until Week 11, when they go to Dallas coming off a bye. And their remaining two West Coast trips are at Seattle and at the Rams in consecutive weeks, which means they can stay out there instead of crisscrossing the country an extra time. Of the four NFC East teams, the Eagles have the fewest outside-the-time-zone games remaining. Plus, they’re 3-1 overall and 2-0 in the division. This doesn’t necessarily stamp this young team and its impressive young quarterback as a favorite, but it does put the Eagles in a strong position to potentially take advantage if the other teams struggle with their travel.

Here are the NFC East teams’ records right now in games outside of their time zones, with remaining such games noted for each:


Record: 1-1

Games remaining: Four — Seattle, New Orleans, Dallas, L.A. Chargers

Philadelphia Eagles

Record: 1-1

Games remaining: Three — Dallas, Seattle, L.A. Rams

Dallas Cowboys

Record: 1-1

Games remaining: Six — San Francisco, Washington, Atlanta, N.Y. Giants, Oakland, Philadelphia

New York Giants

Record: 0-1

Games remaining: Four — Denver, San Francisco, Oakland, Arizona

Of these teams, the most obviously hosed is the Giants, who are 0-4 overall and 0-2 in the division and haven’t yet been to Denver, Oakland or Arizona. A Giants comeback at this point would be, without exaggeration, historic.

The Cowboys lost in Denver and won in Arizona, but after Sunday’s home loss to the Rams, you wonder if they’re built to rack up wins all over the map the way they did in 2016. If they’re a still-good-but-not-as-consistent team as they were last season, that remaining travel schedule has enough potholes to knock them off course.

Washington, which beat the Rams in L.A. and lost late in Kansas City, is already playing tiebreaker catch-up, due to their Week 1 loss to the Eagles. But getting Oakland (which Washington already beat), Denver and Arizona at home is a break and could matter if the division ends up tightly bunched.

So, lots to watch here. But the upshot is that if the travel schedules are going to matter in the NFC East race, the Eagles are set up to take advantage after Sunday’s win.

Some more thoughts on what we learned in Week 4 about the way things might set up the rest of the way:

Patience is a two-way street

The Chicago Bears‘ plan was to give quarterback Mike Glennon this season and let Mitchell Trubisky spend the year getting ready. But Glennon didn’t hold up his end of the deal. He has committed eight turnovers in four games. The Bears are 1-3, with one impressive victory over the Steelers but a near-miss loss to the Falcons and a demoralizing prime-time blowout at the hands of the division-rival Packers.

My colleague Herm Edwards put this perfectly on SportsCenter on Friday, saying Glennon was “costing his team energy,” and my conversations with people in the Bears’ building back that up. This is a team that might not have brought high expectations into the season, but it believes it has played better than its record indicates. Glennon’s mandate was to not steer the car into a ditch, but he kept doing that, and the deflating effect he had on the team was too much to overcome.

Trubisky is a rookie who started just 13 college games. He’s absolutely going to make mistakes and commit turnovers. It’s inevitable. But at least he can intersperse his growing pains with signs of hope and excitement. With Glennon, right or wrong, you get the feeling that he kind of is what he is and that we’ve seen the best he can be. The specific kind of energy Trubisky brings is what the Bears lacked Thursday in Green Bay.

If the Jets are tanking, they’re doing it wrong

Preseason predictions clearly aren’t worth the virtual paper on which they’re printed, but the 2-2 New York Jets have already won .. well, two more games than a lot of people seemed to think they would. This week, they go to Cleveland to play the Browns, who have won two of their past 31 games. We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves to imagine a 3-2 Jets team hosting a 2-3 Patriots team on Oct. 15 while holding a share of first place. (The Pats have to drag their tattered defense to Tampa for a Thursday night game this week.)

None of this means you have to take the Jets seriously as a playoff contender, but this is a credit-where-it’s-due scenario. Were we underestimating coach Todd Bowles’ abilities to persuade his team to play hard for him? Is it possible that the Sheldon Richardson trade, which the Jets had been trying to make happen for more than a year, was addition by subtraction?

Regardless, there are few things better as a sports fan than surprise success. If you’re a Jets fan who thought you’d have nothing to cheer for this season, the past two weeks have proved you wrong. Enjoy it while it lasts, dream big dreams, trash-talk your Giants-fan friends and put off worrying about the draft order for a few months.

We have no idea about the NFC South, and we won’t for a while

The three top teams in the NFC South standings don’t play each other until Week 8: Carolina at Tampa Bay on Oct. 29. The first Falcons-Panthers game of 2017 is a Week 9 game in Charlotte on Nov. 5. The first Bucs-Falcons game of the year is a Week 12 game in Atlanta on Nov. 26. The Falcons play five division games in the final six weeks of the season, with their final three games as follows: at Tampa, at New Orleans, home versus Carolina. Through the season’s first seven weeks, the only intradivision game in the NFC South will have been the Saints’ Week 3 victory over Carolina. The Falcons’ entire division schedule is contained in the season’s second half.

The defending NFC champion Falcons have wobbled more than once in this young season, but they finally fell down Sunday at home against the Bills. They head into their bye at 3-1 — the same record as the Panthers, who just won in Foxborough, and a half-game ahead of the upstart Bucs, who deepened the Giants’ misery in a Sunday home win. Is Cam Newton really fixed? Are the Falcons’ wide receiver injuries serious? Can Tampa Bay get healthy on defense? This looks like it’ll be a fun race, and one of the most fun parts is that the head-to-head portion of it doesn’t get started until almost Halloween. The NFC South could be a breakneck race to the finish line.

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