The revival of the NFC East was on full display Thursday with a compelling Thanksgiving Day clash in Dallas between two teams vying for playoff spots and, at least in the case of the Cowboys, for lofty postseason seeding.
That has not been the norm for the once-proud division in recent years. The NFC East has been a one-and-done division lately in terms of its number of postseason teams. It last sent more than one team to the playoffs in a season in 2009.
That could change in a big way this season. Three NFC East teams are well-positioned to be included in the six-team NFC playoff field, with the Cowboys streaking toward an increasingly inevitable division title while the New York Giants and Washington Redskins elbow for positioning in the wild-card chase.
The Cowboys’ 31-26 triumph Thursday over the Redskins was highly competitive and entertaining, with the two teams trading big plays and touchdowns during a fourth quarter in which they combined for 34 points. The outcome actually didn’t help the division’s chances to have a trio of playoff teams, given that the Redskins are in the most precarious situation.
Still, they will remain the leader, with a record of 6-4-1, for the second of the NFC’s two wild-card spots regardless of the outcomes of other games this weekend. The Giants (7-3) have the top wild-card spot and can strengthen their position with a victory Sunday in Cleveland over the winless Browns. The Cowboys just keep on keeping on, with 10 straight wins and an NFL-best record of 10-1.
“There’s a great deal of confidence,” Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett said after Thursday’s game. “If you look back at the games over the course of the season, we’ve won games a lot of different ways. We’ve been way ahead. We’ve been behind. We’ve been tied. We’ve been ahead by a score, down by a score. We’ve had to come back a couple times within a game.
“I just think the guys stay focused. They stay focused on the task, what they need to do on each play to win that situation. There’s a lot of poise. There’s a lot of composure. I think there’s a deep-down belief and confidence . . . that we’re going to do what we need to do to win the ballgame.”
Since the NFL realigned in 2002 into eight divisions of four teams each, a single division has had three playoffs teams – the division winner plus both wild cards – on six occasions. It last happened with the AFC North’s Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens in 2014. The NFC East has done it twice, in 2006 and 2007. It could happen twice more this season, with the AFC West also attempting to pull it off.
The NFC East in 2016 is a division of new quarterbacks and new coaches. Two rookie quarterbacks, the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott and Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz, have thrived. Two first-year head coaches, the Giants’ Ben McAdoo and the Eagles’ Doug Pederson, are having at least decent success, with Philadelphia at 5-5.
“When you’re winning football games, win five in a row, it should be fun,” Giants quarterback Eli Manning said during his weekly meeting with reporters. “You’re enjoying that time and you’re in playoff contention. You [have] a chance of winning the division, all those things. It’s an exciting time and [there] should be a lot of good energy around the locker room.”
It has become a division of stable quarterback situations. Manning, a two-time Super Bowl winner for the Giants, is the mainstay. Wentz has demonstrated that he has a bright future in Philadelphia. Kirk Cousins is having a superb season for the Redskins, throwing for 3,540 yards and 20 touchdowns while posting a passer rating of 101.4, after being given the franchise player tag instead of a long-term contract in the offseason.
But it is Prescott who has taken the division and the entire league by storm, turning the opportunity presented by Tony Romo’s preseason back injury into a regime change and, with the help of a powerful offensive line and dynamic rookie tailback Ezekiel Elliott, becoming a league MVP candidate. He had all the answers in crunch time again Thursday, as the Cowboys twice immediately answered Redskins’ touchdowns with touchdowns of their own.
“Over and over and over again, at critical moments he came up with big plays. . . . He just played winning football for us and he did the things that winning quarterbacks do,” Garrett said.
The Cowboys’ biggest concern as they attempt to wrap up the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs could be a pass rush that failed to produce a single sack of Cousins in his 53 passing attempts Thursday. Cousins threw for 449 yards and three touchdowns.
“It was not a perfect effort by us on defense, by any means,” Garrett said. “I’m not suggesting that at all. We’ve got plenty to work on. But, again, we did the things we needed to do to win the ballgame.”
The Redskins play three of their remaining five games on the road, including upcoming games at Arizona and Philadelphia. They host the Giants in a Jan. 1 regular season finale that could be meaningful. They are a flawed team that struggles at times to generate a running game on offense and is vulnerable on defense. Coach Jay Gruden has made some questionable in-game moves in recent weeks. But Cousins has an array of capable receivers around him and as long as he remains productive, the Redskins are a threat to just about any opponent.
“By no means do I ever feel like this journey’s over,” Cousins said after the game Thursday. “I feel like I’m far from where I want to be. We lost the game today. So there’s certainly plays that I can point out that weren’t good enough that if we make them, maybe we come out with a different result.”
It has been a turbulent season for the Giants, who endured controversies over the handling of the domestic violence case of their former kicker, Josh Brown, and the on-field emotional outbursts of standout wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. A 2-0 start gave way to a three-game losing streak and McAdoo, who was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach after the franchise’s somewhat-awkward parting with two-time Super Bowl winner Tom Coughlin, was introduced to the rigors of sitting in the big chair for the first time.
But he and the Giants persevered. The $200 million-plus that the team devoted to its defense during an offseason free agent shopping spree has paid off. The Giants are winning the sort of close games they lost with aggravating regularity last season. They take a five-game winning streak into the game in Cleveland. But they must be careful not to sleepwalk against the Browns as they did for portions of last Sunday’s triumph at home over the almost-as-lowly Chicago Bears.
“I don’t know any team who’s not desperate for a win each week,” McAdoo said at a news conference this week. “That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re working. Every win’s important. Every game’s important. Every week’s important.”