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Sports Sally Jenkins: Who woulda thought? NFC East isn't awful after all

Sally Jenkins: Who woulda thought? NFC East isn’t awful after all

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I don’t have the math skills to compute exactly where the NFC East stacks up competitively, but it’s not the fragrant bedpan everyone says it is. If nothing else, it’s a belligerent division at the moment, with flailing fists and last-minute heartbreak as its hallmarks. It’s so tortured and drama-prone that the Washington Redskins have emerged as the emotionally stable ones. How about that?

For much of the season, the NFC East has been as tightly bunched as the Queen’s corgis on a leash. Finally, the teams are beginning to separate, all of them pulling in slightly different directions, and the only team on an upward trajectory is in Washington. The decimated Dallas Cowboys have lost seven games by six points or less. The argumentative Philadelphia Eagles lost three of four in November and four of their last six, but managed to upend the New England Patriots in that stretch. The New York Giants have lost four games in the final 10 seconds, including Sunday’s near-upset of the unbeaten Carolina Panthers. Asked if these sorts of losses are gut punches, Coach Tom Coughlin replied, “Sometimes lower.” That pretty much sums up the division.

Admittedly, it’s not a sign of high quality that the Redskins lead with a .500 record. Grant you that. But Kirk Cousins is right when he says, “We’re headed in the right direction.”

Yes, I know, they’ve played just three winning teams. Yes, it’s true that they’ve beaten all the lesser teams while losing to the quality opponents. But how else do you build a young contender, except by beating the teams you’re supposed to, and learning how you stack up against your superiors? As Coach Jay Gruden pointed out, the active roster includes 24 players with two years’ experience or less, nine of them pure rookies. That’s pretty interesting, and it makes what they’ve done even more interesting, putting themselves in position to clinch a playoff berth with a win over Philadelphia.

Maybe the thing to say about the Redskins is that they are the least disappointed team in a disappointing division. But the NFC East isn’t quite as bad as it looks. Start with the 6-8 Giants, who easily might have won 12 games but instead have lost a half-dozen contests inside the final two minutes. At times, very little has separated the Giants from the best teams in the league. They lost by one point to the Patriots on a final play with one second left. They tied the Panthers with 1:46 left on the chill Eli Manning’s 14-yard touchdown pass to the acid-blooded Odell Beckham Jr. I don’t know what that makes the Giants. Maybe they’re a psychology case study, but they’re not a bad team.

Neither are the Eagles especially bad, at least when Sam Bradford is upright and not writhing on the ground, as he was during their skid in November. They’ve got wins over the 9-5 New York Jets and 12-win Patriots, and when healthy, they beat the teams they should’ve, such as the New Orleans Saints and Buffalo Bills. But they can’t seem to get past some obvious abrasiveness in their own locker room, and a pattern of untimely injuries. They were tied with the 12-win Arizona Cardinals on Sunday night when they lost both starting cornerbacks Byron Maxwell and Eric Rowe, and trailed by just seven at halftime, before they went on to a 40-17 loss that was as much a function of their own turnovers.

“Unfortunately, there are no asterisks,” Coach Chip Kelly said.

They’re a strangely split-personality team, one week awful and the next resilient.

“We still have life,” receiver Jordan Mathews said, “It’s not as demoralizing because we really beat ourselves … I’m really optimistic, and I know that all the guys are, too.”

None of this means the NFC East champ will emerge with a winning record. Back on Dec. 7, the analysts at Fivethirtyeight.com did their metrics thing and declared that the eventual winner had a 77 percent probability of finishing 8-8 or worse. There was even a moment a few weeks back when it looked as if the NFC East was going to produce a playoff team with a 6-10 record. The moment has passed.

Who would have said the team most likely to rescue the dignity of the division and emerge with a winning mark was the Redskins? Yet it’s true. They’re 5-3 over the second half of the season, and two of those loses came to the best teams in football in the Patriots and Panthers, the other was to their archrivals the Cowboys. In the meantime they’ve helped knock Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Chicago and Buffalo out of playoff contention. And they appear to be getting better by the week, a function of improved health and Cousins’ dramatic development.

We will know next Saturday just how much of a football team they really are. In the meantime, it’s all conjecture. But one theoretical gauge of the NFC East’s quality is to ask yourself just how much anyone wants to go on the road in the first round to face the champ of this combative division in a playoff game? Think about that.

Also think about this: Will the NFC East champ, whoever it may be, really be noticeably weaker than whoever comes out of the AFC South, where the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars aren’t exactly scaring anyone?

At some point, the division’s lousy reputation may even become an advantage. The NFC East champ will be ridiculously free of expectations – which could make them just a little bit dangerous.

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at sally.jenkins@washpost.com

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