There are some NFL myths that linger well beyond their truthfulness.
For example, it used to be true that a team could pick up valuable talent after players were released for salary cap purposes after June 1 each year. Long past the time that this pool dried up due to better salary cap management and to changes in the collective bargaining agreement fans still asked, “Who can we pick up in June to fill that hole?”
Another persistent myth is that a team has to play well in its division in order to make the playoffs. It used to be that a winning record in intradivisional play was a must if a team wanted to play in the postseason.
That no longer is the case.
OK, the concept isn’t as dead as Elvis or the June 1 talent surge or anything. Every win helps you get to the playoffs. Still, division games aren’t as significant as they used to be. We’ll look at why that is in a minute. First, let’s look at the NFC East
Last year the Dallas Cowboys were the biggest disappointment in the NFL, perhaps in all of professional sports. The Super Bowl favorites didn’t even get a chance to go one and done in the playoffs again.
Very few analysts had the Eagles pegged to reach the NFC title game when the season started.
Even fewer thought they would get that far when they fell to 5-5-1 with an ugly Week 12 loss in Baltimore that saw Donovan McNabb get benched. But they rallied and made it all the way to Arizona and held a fourth-quarter lead before giving up a late touchdown.
The Giants met expectations by winning the NFC East. Early in the season they were one of the top teams in the league but they couldn’t overcome the loss of Plaxico Burress, slumped late and were one and done in the playoffs.
You could say that the Redskins both surprised by starting 6-2 and disappointed with the 2-6 finish, missing the playoffs. But, on balance, most had the Skins pegged to be within a game or two of .500 so they met expectations.
So what’s going to happen in 2009? Right now the consensus expectations are for the Eagles to finish first followed by the Giants and Cowboys with the Redskins taking up the rear.
Recent history indicates that the Eagles could well falter. Since going to the Super Bowl in 2004 they have alternated seasons where they missed and made the playoffs. However, the Eagles have taken steps to prevent a continuation of that pattern.
They added some talented players such as tackle Jason Peters and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. If Maclin can contribute as well his rookie year as well as DeSean Jackson did in his first year in Philly the Eagles could be a powerhouse.
The Giants drafted their replacement for Plax in Hakeem Nicks but it remains to be seen if he can provide Eli Manning much help as a rookie. Regardless, the Giants defense, bolstered by the return of Osi Umenyiora, and running game, featuring Brandon Jacobs, should bring them 10 wins even if the passing game isn’t at peak efficiency.
Is the Cowboys’ window closing? They have played to a level that is less than the sum of their parts for the past three years. Tony Romo may not be clutch in the playoffs but he generally keeps Dallas in virtually every regular-season game.
What all of this means that even one of the NFC East team disappoints in 2009 there is unlikely to be a team that is a soft touch for the Redskins. The tough division, however, does not put a huge damper on the Redskins’ playoff chances.
Why? Because there only are six division games.
The NFC East was tough last year with no team posting a losing record. The difficulty of the division, however, is not what cost the Redskins a playoff spot. They went 3-3 in division, sweeping the Eagles, splitting with Dallas and getting swept by New York.
Losses to weaklings St. Louis and Cincinnati are what kept the team home at playoff time. If the Redskins win those two games they’re in. If they win one of those two they are in contention going into that last game in San Francisco and maybe as the more motivated team they win that one and, again, at 10-6 they’re in.
In short, while division games are important, they’re not as important as they used to be when they comprised half of your schedule.
If the Redskins can break even in the division again they could well be able to find the other six or seven wins they will need to make the playoffs from the 10 games that make up one of the softest non-division schedules in the NFL.