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The Tight Race in the NFC (L)East is Actually Appetizing

 

Philadelphia, Dallas, Washington and the New York Giants are combining for a bumbling, stumbling, fumbling division race. Criticism aside, the NFC East is nothing if it’s not close – historically close as Dallas and Washington go centerstage for a Thanksgiving matinee.

By: Craig Haley

Cranberry sauce – in all its maroon, mushy glory – is just weird enough to make someone feel a bit queasy.

Sitting opposite that person, though, may be someone looking on with anticipation during Thanksgiving dinner.

It’s all how you look at it. Or stomach it.

Alex Smith hopes to lead Washington to the top of the ugly NFC East.

Look up from your plate to the TV. The maroon remains, perhaps along with the sentiment. The 3-7 Washington Football Team and the 3-7 Dallas Cowboys are squaring off on Thursday in an apt manifestation of Turkey Day.

The Philadelphia Eagles sit in first place at 3-6-1 and with a slight lead over Dallas, Washington and a New York Giants team that also is 3-7, but as the hottest team in the division with a two-game winning streak. The pessimist will see that and voice the potential of an under-.500 team hosting a playoff game. The optimist may point out it’s impossible for things to be this bad without being intriguingly close.

The beauty to be found in the NFC East, it turns out, is we’re 10 games into an NFL season and last place is 60 minutes from the driver’s seat.

We’re all going to watch. That’s what we do on Thanksgiving. So pass on the cranberries if you like – here’s a side of historical context instead.

THE TIGHTEST DIVISIONS IN NFL HISTORY

While the Washington-Dallas winner will only improve to 4-7, it will move at least temporarily move past Philadelphia into first place by sporting a .364 winning percentage to the Eagles’ .350.

If the NFL playoffs were beginning on Thanksgiving Day, instead of moving into a six-week sprint to the regular-season finish line, the NFC East would be the tightest division in the NFL since the AFL merger in 1970.

Wayne Chrebet douses coach Herman Edwards as the Jets clinch the East Division title on Dec. 29, 2002.

The tie that separates Philadelphia from New York, Dallas and Washington makes the division even tighter than two end-of-season scenarios that were separated by one game – the 2002 AFC East and the 2011 AFC West.

In 2002, the New York Jets went 9-7 to capture the division on a tiebreaker, with the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins also finishing 9-7, and the Buffalo Bills at 8-8. In 2011, the Denver Broncos finished 8-8, clinching over the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders, who also were 8-8, and one game ahead of the 7-9 Kansas City Chiefs.

Next closest was the 1½-game spread across the 1989 AFC Central, where the Cleveland Browns (9-6-1) outlasted the Houston Oilers (9-7), Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7) and Cincinnati Bengals (8-8).

The NFC East is also tied for the smallest gap in games back between first and last in a division through Week 11 since the merger, though all the records on this list are substantially better than this year’s race:

SeasonDivisionGames BackTeams
2014AFC North0.5Bengals (6-3-1), Steelers (7-4), Browns (6-4), Ravens (6-4)
2020NFC East0.5Eagles (3-6-1), Cowboys (3-7), Washington (3-7), Giants (3-7)
1977AFC Central1.0Steelers (7-4), Bengals (6-5), Browns (6-5), Oilers (6-5)
1987AFC East1.0Bills (6-5), Colts (6-5), Jets (6-5), Dolphins (5-6), Patriots (5-6)
2002AFC East1.0Dolphins (6-4), Bills (5-5), Jets (5-5), Patriots (5-5)

NFC EAST PLAYOFF PATHS 

It’s hard to imagine any of the NFC East teams getting ahead of themselves and planning the wild-card weekend festivities just yet, but Dallas has a clear path to the division title.

The Cowboys’ six remaining opponents have a combined 21-37-1 record – a .367 winning percentage that is the second-lowest in the NFL only to the Seattle Seahawks’ schedule (20-39-1, .342, which includes Philadelphia, the Giants and Washington). The Cowboys are the only NFC East team with one game remaining against each of its division brethren, and five of its six remaining opponents are at least two games below .500.

Ezekiel Elliott looks for yards in a 23-9 loss to the Eagles earlier this month.

Washington’s upcoming opponents are a combined 31-29-1, a .516 winning percentage that makes it the 15th-toughest schedule in the NFL. The problem for Washington is it’s the only NFC East team with four of its six remaining games on the road, including the Dallas game followed by trips to the unbeaten Pittsburgh Steelers and across the country to the San Francisco 49ers.

The Football Team has it slightly easier than the Giants, whose opponents (31-28-1, .525) provide them with the 11th-toughest schedule. The Giants, meanwhile, are favored on Sunday to extend their win streak at the Joe Burrow-less Cincinnati Bengals.

Philadelphia has the NFL’s fifth-most difficult remaining schedule (34-26, .567), but their brutal stretch actually started this past Sunday with a loss at a Cleveland Browns squad that improved to 7-3, and continuing with Seattle (7-3), at Green Bay (7-3), New Orleans (8-2) and at Arizona (6-4).

If the Eagles can survive the stretch and remain in playoff contention, it will end the regular season with a road game against the Cowboys – who the Eagles already beat – and a home game versus the Football Team – who the Eagles already lost to.

Second helping, anyone?

 

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