At midpoint in the season two favorites and an outsider lead the mysterious Eastern Division of the National Football League and the other four teams are nowhere. The Cleveland Browns, who can beat anyone but the St. Louis Cardinals and the West, lead the division; the Cardinals, who seem to have all they need to beat everyone but a sense of daring, are second.
And the New York Giants, with all the faults and virtues of youthful enthusiasm, are a surprising third. The remaining four—Pittsburgh, Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington—are clumped together in a melancholy heap on the bottom of the division, each having managed to win only two of the seven games played so far.
And no Eastern Division team, from the Browns on down, has managed to win a game from a Western team. The West now leads the East 7-0 in interconference games. The Minnesota Vikings, in a three-way tie for third in the West with a 4-3 record, underlined the superiority of the division last Sunday by stopping the Cleveland Browns and Jim Brown 27-17. The Vikings played a close and adventurous defense designed to reach Brown before he could gain momentum and Frank Ryan before he could find his receivers, and they succeeded in both aims.
Nevertheless, the Browns appear to be the best team in the East. They have won five of their seven games despite having lost five starting players at one time or another and despite the handicap imposed upon them by the injury to Paul Warfield in the preseason All-Star Game. Warfield has yet to play a down; his badly fractured collarbone has healed much more slowly than was anticipated. Without him, Ryan must depend upon Gary Collins as his primary receiver, and every defense the Browns face puts two men on Collins. Once Warfield returns—and he should be back in another fortnight—the Brown offense should flower and the burden on their good defense will be significantly lessened. The Browns lead the division without having realized their full potential; when they are fit, they could win in a canter.
The Cardinals, who have beaten the Browns, suffer from a curious split personality. On defense, they are devil-may-care gamblers, as daring as hell-divers. On offense, they operate with the recklessness of your maiden aunt playing whist for a penny a point. Too often they have indulged their cardinal sin of trying to sit on a small lead. On Sunday this cost them their third loss of the season, to the New York Giants.
Leading the Giants 10-0 at the half, the Cardinals went into a shell when on offense in the second half. Not until the Giants had moved into a 14-10 lead with four minutes to go did Charley Johnson open up the offense again, and by then it was too late. St. Louis moved powerfully on two long marches, but the Giants stopped both.
"We've lost to teams we expected to beat twice," said Safety Jerry Stovall after the game, referring to Philadelphia, Washington and New York. "You can't do that and hope to win a title. There's still half a season left but we have to win them all." Among the seven games left for the Cardinals to play are two with Western Division teams—Los Angeles and Chicago. It does not appear likely that the Cardinals will win seven straight.
The Giants, no matter how many of their remaining seven games they lose, have had a surprisingly successful season. "Morrall played as brilliant a game of quarterback as I have ever seen," said a cheerful Allie Sherman after Sunday's victory. "His calls against red dogs were extraordinary. He was chewing out gains under the most impossible pressure. It takes guts to go against the dog the way he did. The Cards dog unbelievably. Some of the spots they shot I've never even read about. It's a dangerous way to live, but they are good at it."
Morrall, obtained from the Detroit Lions in a late trade just before the season began, has been the key to the Giant success. He began slowly as he familiarized himself with the Giant offense, but now he passes with poise and accuracy and he gives the young Giant team the assurance of a veteran. In Tucker Frederickson, a big and quick rookie running back, New York has the most promising young runner in the league east of Chicago's Gale Sayers.
In fact, most of the Giants, on offense and defense, are young and apt to make mistakes. But look for the Giants to improve steadily; they may blow some games because of youthful folly, but will not blow many. However, they still have the meat of their schedule ahead. They play both St. Louis and Cleveland on the road and they must still meet their second Western Division team. That is Chicago in New York, and the Bears now rank as one of the strongest teams in the league.