All Eyes On The NFC East
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports columnist
Okay, let’s have a feel-good story to start the New Year with. How about … the NFC East?
Admittedly, the worst and weakest division in the National Football League wouldn’t be the most obvious launching point for a heartwarming tale and this isn’t an attempt to confuse those of you who might be nursing a post-celebratory hangover.
However, as Sunday delivers us the final throes of a season that at times felt like a long shot to even make it this far, there is simply no more fascinating tale of drama and unpredictability than amid the varying levels of chaos surrounding the New York Giants (5-10), Dallas Cowboys (6-9), Philadelphia Eagles (4-9-1) and Washington Football Team (6-9).
The NFC East has been utterly vilified for its ineptitude over the past several months, at various times described as the "worst division ever" (Slate), "embarrassingly bad" (USA TODAY Sports), "putrid" (Yahoo Sports), "pathetic" (CBS) and "beyond pathetic" (The Big Lead).
Come on, it’s not really so bad. Is it?
"Yes," former All-Pro Brandon Marshall said on First Things First, all the way back at the midpoint of the campaign. "It is a mess of a division."
Fine, it still is, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as watchable on Sunday if it wasn’t. Ultimately, it will be a feel-good tale for one team and one team only, whose regular season will end having caught a playoff rainbow despite failing to complete the most intrinsic goal for any squad – to win more than you lose.
For the rest of us, it is the can’t miss finale to a freakishly wild episodic, with a closing plotline guaranteed to build throughout the day given the deliberate nature of the scheduling. The Cowboys and Giants will do battle to begin things (1 p.m. ET on FOX) with the loser eliminated and left to face all the soul searching that could and should come from suffering at least 10 defeats.
The winner must then sit tight and fulfill an appointment with the remote control, as Washington, with its fate resting squarely in its own hands, bids for a win against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Eagles are the only one of the four divisional teams to be out of the running entirely. In NFC East 2020 bizarro world, five wins keep you in contention all the way through to Week 17 but four (plus a tie) just doesn’t cut it. Wouldn’t it also be entirely in character though, for Philly to play spoiler and break a heart or two?
"We’re attacking," Eagles cornerback Darius Slay told reporters. "We’re an attack team. We know what’s on the line. We don’t want anybody celebrating on our field wearing (championship) hats and T-shirts. We’re looking forward to going out to mess up some dreams."
There is never truly a good time for whining and certainly not on the first weekend of a brand new year, which is why all the grumbles about the NFC East really don’t matter a hoot right now.
Believe me, I know all the stats and the quirks. I know the division’s representatives have only gone 11-28-1 against external opponents. I know that only twice in NFL history has a losing record secured a division title in a 16-game season. I know that if results go a certain way, it will be the first time a 6-10 squad makes the postseason. I know that whichever of the three possibles make it will create a new benchmark, having each started 2-7, a record that spelled doom for the previous teams to have begun so poorly.
It’s now at a point where I really don’t care about all that. The rules are the rules, they’re designed for maximum entertainment and there are times when they harm teams and times when they help them.
The basic requirement of guaranteeing yourself a home playoff game is to finish better than the three other teams that you’re lumped in with. That challenge is no fun if you’re paired with a 14-1 monster like the Kansas City Chiefs and a whole lot more promising if your nemeses all happen to currently be among football’s biggest strugglers. It is what it is.
The best part of what it is, is that it’s a genuine fight for a prize and therefore a pair of Week 17 games that greatly matter. It is neat and simple, unless there is a tie, in which it all gets complex. Barring that, there is one do-or-die clash followed by another, with a solitary survivor at the end of it and a carrot that is absolutely worth having.
When coaches talk too much about playoffs it sometimes ends up as memes or beer commercials, so it is no surprise the contending coaches, from Washington’s Ron Rivera, to the Giants’ Joe Judge and the Cowboys’ Mike McCarthy, are each handling it differently.
Rivera wants to get to the playoffs because he thinks his team can spring some upsets. "I believe we can make some noise, I really do," he said.
McCarthy wants in because he believes in momentum and feels a winning conclusion can only bode well.
"Success at the end of the season catapults you into your offseason program," he said.
Judge meanwhile, was the most circumspect of them all, to the point where the playoffs transmit for him only in a hypothetical realm.
"Those games right now don’t exist," Judge said. "At the same time, it’s human nature that (the players) are very conscious of what’s going on around the league and it would be naive or ignorant to pretend they’re not paying attention."
We’ll be paying attention too, for a bad division doesn’t mean poor entertainment, quite the opposite in this case.
And, on Sunday, someone will be crowned a champion, a weird and dumbfounding kind of champion, sure. But at least to claim that honor they’ll have had to finish the regular season – and kick off 2021 by doing something rare and unfamiliar.