Analysis

Predicting topsy-turvy NFC East with all four teams still alive

With a chance to extend its slim lead in the NFC East on Sunday, the Washington Football Team failed.

With a chance to move within a half-game of first place in the NFC East on Sunday, the Eagles also failed.

And with a chance to take over first place in the NFC East on Sunday, the Giants continued the trend of the day and failed.

Perhaps the only surprise on Sunday was the Cowboys staying in the division hunt by winning without running back Ezekiel Elliott, who was a game-time scratch against the 49ers because of a calf bruise.

So what are we to make of the NFC East with two weeks to play? The only thing we know for sure is that the winner will not finish the season with a winning record. The best anyone can do is 8-8, which would require Washington to win out. The Giants or Cowboys could get to seven wins if either wins its final two, while the Eagles can do no better than 6-9-1.

But perhaps fittingly, each remains alive in its quest for the division crown and an automatic playoff berth. And if you're wondering, the last team to reach the postseason with a sub-.500 record was the Carolina Panthers, who finished 7-8-1 in 2014. Let the record show that the Panthers also won their playoff opener that season before bowing out in the divisional round.

Trying to identify the eventual NFC East champion is kind of like trying tackle Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray one-on-one in the open field: You're likely to miss and will look foolish in the process. But what the heck, we could all use some levity in these tough times, so here is my projected order of finish:

Rank
1
Washington Football Team
Washington Football Team
Current record: 6-8

Week 16: vs. Carolina Panthers (4-10)

Week 17: at Philadelphia Eagles (4-9-1)


It may not have a nickname, but it does have a talented defense and just enough offense, even if Dwayne Haskins were to start the final two games for Alex Smith, who sat out Sunday with a calf injury. Haskins made early mistakes in the 20-15 loss to the Seahawks that were reflective of why he lost his starting job earlier in the year, but the second-year pro found his rhythm in the fourth quarter, leading two touchdown drives while completing 20-of-28 passes for 170 yards and a score. The starting job remains Smith's when healthy -- since 2018, Washington is 10-5 when he starts, 6-25 when he doesn't -- but Haskins flashed enough to believe the offense can stay above water while Smith is out.


Washington closes against Carolina at home and the Eagles on the road. Neither will be gimmies: The Panthers have lost eight of nine, but only one of the defeats was by more than eight points, and four were by five points or fewer. The Eagles have lost five of six, but suddenly look alive offensively with Jalen Hurts at quarterback the past two games.

Rank
2
New York Giants
New York Giants
Current record: 5-9

Week 16: at Baltimore Ravens (9-5)

Week 17: vs. Dallas Cowboys (5-9)


The Giants close the season at Baltimore, then home against the Cowboys. The former is a tough matchup, considering the Ravens appear to have found their mojo again. They've held three of their last four opponents to 19 points or fewer and will be facing a Giants team that has not surpassed 19 points since Nov. 15.


New York QB Daniel Jones has missed two of the last three weeks due to injury, and it's uncertain whether he will be back to face the Ravens. But even if he does return, getting past Baltimore seems improbable. Best-case scenario for the Giants is that they win both games and Washington loses at least one, because they would own the tiebreaker (by virtue of two wins over the Football Team this season) should the teams finished tied atop the division.

Rank
3
Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles
Current record: 4-9-1

Week 16: at Dallas Cowboys (5-9)

Week 17: vs. Washington Football Team (6-8)


The Eagles have appeared more vibrant overall since Hurts replaced Carson Wentz in the starting lineup. I can see them winning out because, No. 1, the Cowboys are clearly beatable if you don't turn over the ball, as the 49ers did Sunday with backup QB Nick Mullens; and, No. 2, Washington could well clinch the division title next week and rest some players in the finale.

Rank
4
Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys
Current record: 5-9

Week 16: vs. Philadelphia Eagles (4-9-1)

Week 17: at New York Giants (5-9)


The Cowboys have been playing with greater urgency and efficiency during a two-game win streak, but that success has come against bad teams starting bad backup quarterbacks. Hurts is a backup-turned-starter who is far from bad. In fact, he has been pretty darn good. And the fact that he has something to play for even if the Eagles as a team might not -- he wants to be a serious candidate to start in 2021 -- means he will look to finish strong. So, I see the Eagles beating the Cowboys, which will have Dallas players thinking about their vacation plans entering a meaningless season finale at the Giants. (Remember, I have Washington clinching the division with a week to play.)

So, that's how things will play out. My gut tells me so. Then again, that could be indigestion.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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