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The NFC East is about to become a muddled mess

The New York Giants put an emphatic exclamation point on a week of performances by a single division in the NFL that was as bad as you could have expected from a group of teams that managed to save a 2-2 record for the week.  The Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys followed up last week’s overtime incompetence fest with late, come from behind victories over bad opponents in Miami and Seattle.  The Philadelphia Eagles drove their fans to the bring in the disdain for head coach Andy Reid after being blown out by the Patriots at the Linc.  And with plenty at stake for the Giants on Monday Night, they completely failed to execute their defensive gameplan at the Superdown, a gameplan that likely would have been inadequate anyway based on the way their offense got dominated.  And with five weeks to go, we know that at least one team from this powerhouse division must make the playoffs, which is frankly something every team in the division should be thankful for.

Last season, the NFC East’s remarkable streak of five consecutive years putting two or more playoff teams in the NFC field came to an abrupt end when the Cowboys and Redskins were out of it early, and the Giants failed to close out a spot at the end of the season, giving it up to the eventual world champs on the road in Week 16.  Since the middle of the last decade, roughly 40% of NFC playoff teams have included the Cowboys, Redskins, Giants, and Eagles.

The downward trend of the division has continued this year, and with the total collapse of the Eagles, my prediction of the Giants to win the NFC East because they were mostly the same team as last year obscures that it’s going to be painfully difficult for the Giants to win 10 games again now.  It wasn’t so much that they lost to the Saints, but the way that they lost to the Saints: they weren’t competitive.  Never once after going down 14-3 did the Giants offense get the ball back having made progress from the end of the last drive.  For the Giants, late season defensive collapses have become an organization staple.  And this year, their continued collapse will be good enough to safely deliver the division to the Cowboys.

Except lets hold that thought for a minute.  I went back to the Cowboys record down the final six, seven, eight games over the last four seasons, and the one principle that determined how they finished their season was how well their defense was playing.  This may simply be an effect of a lack of offensive depth, which could be something the Cowboys are ready to overcome this year, but whenever the Cowboys defense plays well, Dallas performs well down the stretch, and against good opponents.  But when the defense has struggled, the performance of the Cowboys has a whole does not hold up late into the season.  Quarterback Tony Romo gets blamed for this, but the Cowboys just played at home on Thanksgiving against the Miami Dolphins, and trailed for a significant part of the second half.

Miami lacking a quarterback was enough to deliver the victory to Dallas, but this creates a real problem for the Dallas Cowboys’ playoff hopes.  They have to beat the “struggling” Giants at least once in the last month of the season in order to stay alive in the division.  The Cowboys have always struggled to cover the receivers of the New York Giants, and their offensive results against the New York Giants defense have long been a mixed bag.  With the Giants defense struggling, the match-up should favor Tony Romo, but with Miles Austin still hurt and Felix Jones not yet effective, the Cowboys are relying on a rookie running back (DeMarco Murray), a receiver (Laurent Robinson) who was claimed off waivers two weeks into the season, a talented flake at the other receiver (Dez Bryant), and another target who is in the process of recovering from a hamstring strain in Miles Austin.

Romo’s performance this season has been excellent in spite of it, but what is remarkable about the Cowboys is just how well Romo has needed to play of late in order to beat bad teams.  Teams worse than the “declining” New York Giants.  The Cowboys four game winning streak looks like this: the Seahawks at home, the Bills at home, the Redskins on the road, and the Dolphins at home.  They also beat the Rams at home coming off their Week 5 bye.  Before you credit the Cowboys for being a strong home team as evidenced by their 4-1 record at Cowboys stadium, consider that they haven’t beat a team at home better than either the Eagles or the Giants, who will be the final two opponents at home for the Dallas Cowboys.  Their most impressive home victory remains their first against the Redskins, a game where the did not score an offensive touchdown.

Luckily for the Cowboys, their remaining road schedule is significantly easier, having only to handle the Cardinals and Buccaneers before a Week 17 showdown at New York that could easily decide the division.  In prior seasons, the Cowboys have shown those kind of games to be exactly the games they would struggle with, but at least this year, there’s no obvious warning sign to point to either of those defense being able to force Tony Romo into enough mistakes to change the outcome of the game.  Only here’s the problem: Dallas has to struggle with just one of those two teams for the entire division hierarchy to be thrown into disarray, and for the Eagles and Redskins to find themselves right back in it.

The Eagles and Redskins both need to run to 4-1 just to have a chance, which is why both teams have incredibly low playoff odds.  The Giants and the Cowboys have to collapse and muddle the division first, and then Michael Vick or Mike Shanahan has to go seize the moment.  It is highly doubtful that the Redskins will prove capable of winning more than they lose over the last five weeks as the jury has already returned on them being a bad team — although the fact is that they already put together one 3-1 stretch over the course of this season.  A second such stretch while the Cowboys and Giants struggle would at least make the last two games of the season relevant.

The Eagles on the other hand are already certain to be relevant at the end of the year because they play the Cowboys and the Redskins the last two weeks of the season.  The Eagles fight for relevancy will include a 3 game stretch which starts tonight in Seattle.  The Seahawks can end the Eagles season tonight, but if they are unable to, the Eagles will be in the playoff picture until the end of the year.

Teams in the NFC East have proven unable to put away the other, struggling teams.  Right now, it’s the Cowboys division to lose, but if the East has taught us anything this year, it’s that no one is able to put the division away, and any of the four teams could be around at the end of December.

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  1. March 30, 2012 at 4:41 am

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