Can The Unpredictable NFC East Maintain Control Of NFC Playoff Picture?
Less than a year ago, the Washington Redskins were celebrating their first NFC East title since 2012 after winning six of their last eight games and four straight to finish a respectable 9-7 and enter the playoffs as a dismal division’s only representative.
Despite ending its three-year playoff drought and winning one of the league’s most perennially tough divisions, Washington performed exactly as you’d expect the champion of a group that included just one winning record to perform in the post-season, losing 35-18 at home to the Green Bay Packers on Wild Card Weekend. But in today’s parity-driven NFL, a lot can change in 11 months.
This season, the NFC East has once again turned the tables on a variety of pre-season projections and enters Week 13 with a firm hold on the NFC playoff picture. At the top, the 10-1 Dallas Cowboys have beaten the odds to find their starting quarterback of the future just when it looked like they were doomed by the loss of Tony Romo, and if the post-season began today, the conference’s top team would be joined by both the 8-3 New York Giants and the 6-5 Redskins.
During the first offensive series of the Cowboys’ pre-season loss to the Seattle Seahawks on August 26th, Romo went down with a back injury that forced head coach Jason Garrett to hand the offense to rookie Dak Prescott. At the time, the move was little more than Garrett’s way of protecting his injury-prone quarterback. But with the help of rookie running back sensation Ezekiel Elliot, Prescott has guided Dallas to the league’s best record while giving Cowboy fans reason to believe in a very bright future.
In the Empire State, the Giants survived an early three-game slide and enter this week’s action with six straight wins to their credit despite a suspect run-game and an offense that currently ranks 22nd in total yards [3,695]. Without injured running back Shane Vereen, who’s just returned to practice after missing each of the last nine games with a triceps injury, the Giants have relied on Eli Manning and the team’s potent passing attack to power the offense while an improved defense has given Big Blue an actual shot to make the playoffs for the first time in four years.
Last Week’s Thanksgiving Day loss to Dallas snapped Washington’s two-game winning streak and allowed the 5-6 Philadelphia Eagles to pull within one win of the reigning NFC East champs. That loss also marked the beginning of the Redskins’ run of three straight road games, and if Washington [6-4-1] is going to hang-on to one of the NFC’s two Wild Cards, starting quarterback Kirk Cousins and company must find a way to win in Arizona against the Cardinals on Sunday and in Philadelphia on December 11th.
Following a deceiving 3-0 start, an early bye week sent the Eagles into a 2-6 tailspin that’s most recently included a pair of consecutive losses to the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers. To be fair, each of Philly’s last eight outings have come against teams that are currently in the playoff hunt. But with their final four games of the regular season scheduled against Washington, the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens, the Giants, and Cowboys, things aren’t going to get any easier for the Eagles after they travel to Cincinnati to face the Bengals this weekend.
During the last ten-plus years, the NFC East has been one of football’s most unpredictable divisions. Washington, Dallas, and Philadelphia have all claimed division crowns since 2013, and no team has won consecutive NFC East championships since the Eagles won their fourth straight in 2004.
While Dallas doesn’t look like its going to lose its two-win lead on New York, a season-ending showdown could offer all four teams one last chance to significantly improve their respective playoff positions. In Week 17, the Redskins will host the Giants and the Eagles will entertain the Cowboys on what’s shaping-up to be one of the most important days in recent division history. Of course, that day will only remain significant to the NFC playoff picture if the Giants, Redskins, and Eagles can keep pace with the Cowboys during the next four weeks.