NFC East drama? You can count on it

NFC East is NFL's drama division, and Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, New York Giants are delivering plenty.

Every Wednesday until the Super Bowl, Brian Billick will write a weekly column looking in-depth at different aspects of the modern NFL and will discuss experiences and insights he gained while coaching and broadcasting.

Competitive balance and parity are great, but no matter how balanced the NFL is, the NFC East will always be the league’s marquee division, with the big three East Coast media markets of New York, Philadelphia and Washington represented. There’s also the Dallas Cowboys who — though they may not be the dominant presence they were in the 1970s — are still America’s Team, in the sense that most football fans either love them or loathe them.

This has been a compelling year in the NFC East, with an unusually convulsive division race. Over the course of this season, every one of these teams has been left for dead. But going into the final two weeks, the Redskins, Cowboys and Giants are in a dead heat, with the Eagles set to play spoiler.

They’ve all taken turns at the top.

A month into the season, Philadelphia was looking like the smart money team. By the end of October, many were set to give concede the division to the Giants. And after the past two weeks, the Redskins have a slight edge. Before it’s all over, the Cowboys team that began the season with an impressive win over the Giants in the opener might have marched through all sorts of adversity back to the top.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Last year, Dallas was 8-6, primed for a division title and optimistic it could run the table to finish 10-6. Instead, the Cowboys were knocked off by a 6-8 Philly team that had begun the year as the “Dream Team” only to steadily disappoint.

After the Eagles’ upset over Dallas, many projected that Philadelphia would use the win as a stepping stone to bigger things in 2012. Instead, the Eagles have shown their true colors, almost certainly gotten their head coach fired (to say nothing of letting their starting quarterback get maimed).

The 2011 Cowboys, meanwhile, were ambushed again a week later, by a struggling Giants team that, of course, went on to win the Super Bowl.

But this is a tougher Cowboys team. Back then they had a porous secondary and Tony Romo was doing his usual Jekyll and Hyde act. Now the secondary is solid — the free-agent signing Brandon Carr has been a big help — but the Cowboys have been gutted down the middle of the defense playing backups at nose tackle, both inside linebacker spots and strong safety. Yet they’ve held together somehow.

Romo, for all the flak he takes, has proved his toughness and leadership many times over. He’ll have to do it some more. This week, Dallas has to face a very dangerous New Orleans Saints team that just shut out Tampa Bay 41-0 and looks as good on offense as ever. If Dallas can beat the Saints, it will play the Redskins in Week 17 with the division title on the line.

As for the Giants, they can never be counted out. The champions remain so until they’re eliminated, and at their best, they can beat anyone in the NFL. But the stretch run in 2012 will be a tough one. New York had the schedule fall in its favor last year, playing an imploding Jets team and then a disappointing Cowboys squad in its last two regular-season games. This year, the Giants have to beat a wounded but dangerous Ravens team in Baltimore — one that needs a win nearly as much as New York does. The Giants figure to have an easier time in Week 17, when they play host to an Eagles team whose charter jet engines should be running for a quick getaway at season’s end.

Or so it would seem. Philly’s collapse is complete with their loss to the Bengals last week, but they still have a chance to have an impact on the playoff picture, playing both Washington and New York in the final two games. A 4-10 Eagles team that is on the verge of seeing Andy Reid, coach for the past 14 years, walk out the door might not have the resolve to stand up to the hungry Redskins and desperate Giants. Then again, stranger things have happened.

Every year or two we have a final-Sunday drama when a team with nothing to play for rises up and beats a team that needs only a win to make the playoffs. How does that happen?

Well, there’s no external pressure, so players are better able to focus on the task at hand — they don’t have to scoreboard watch, they don’t have to tighten up with the pressure of the moment. They just have to relax and play football. Second, every player on those also-ran teams all want to make sure that their game film looks good for the next coach to come in, or — if they’re planning on leaving — for the other coaches around the league looking to sign a free agent. Once you eliminate the distractions and pressure, you can accomplish a lot on the football field.

After 15 weeks, a Redskins team that began the season 3-6 is in the best position. They swept their three division foes coming out of their bye week and have won five straight games. The schedule looks favorable: They can dispense with the Eagles this week and then close against a Dallas team that could very well have already been eliminated by the Saints.

What do I think’s going to happen? Well, if I knew what was going to happen every week, I’d probably own a team by now. But after having seen every one of these teams play more than once, my best guess is that New Orleans upsets Dallas, while the Redskins run the table, beating Dallas and taking the division. I also think New York will beat Baltimore and then hammer Philly to grab a wild-card spot at 10-6.

Whatever happens, we’re set up for the sort of drama that defines an NFL season. And the biggest headlines will be coming out of this division.

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