We were all wrong about the NFC East. Well, most of us were. Especially those of us—thankfully not me—who joked that the winner of the NFL's worst division would make the playoffs with a 7-9 record.
After victories this week, the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles both have seven wins through just 12 games, and with one game between the two left to play in the season's final week, 7-9 is officially off the table. (Note: 7-8-1 is still in play.)
The thing is, Dallas and Philadelphia have not looked like the losers we expected them to be this year. Both teams look like bona fide NFL winners right now, and a lot of that is thanks to two players at quarterback.
Through 12 games, Tony Romo has thrown for more than 3,140 yards and 24 touchdowns to just seven interceptions, and while his completion percentage of 64.8 is a dip below his career average, he is still ranked seventh in the league in that category. His passer rating is 97.3, which is better than that of Matthew Stafford, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Tom Brady and all but seven quarterbacks who have thrown more than a dozen passes this season.
It's not, however, better than the rating for Nick Foles.
Foles leads the NFL in passer rating with a mark of 125.2, and that includes the absolute clunker of a game against Dallas in which the quarterback looked like he was in his second year in high school, not the NFL.
Foles was concussed in that Dallas loss, missing the next week when Michael Vick and Matt Barkley put up just seven points in a 15-7 loss to the resurgent New York Giants. Since Foles has returned from injury, however, he has been nothing short of the best quarterback in football.
In his last four games, Foles is 72-of-106 (.679) for 1,169 yards and 13 touchdowns to zero interceptions.
Zero. Foles has attempted 196 passes on the season, 19 of which have gone for scores, with zero interceptions.
Now, luck has something to do with that, for sure. Three weeks ago, Foles threw a jump ball to DeSean Jackson down the field that was a surefire interception until two defenders collided, popped the ball in the air for Jackson to calmly snag before sauntering into the end zone.
This week, Foles threw a horrible fourth-quarter interception in his own territory with the Eagles up just three points that could have led to an Arizona Cardinals game-tying—or worse, game-winning—score, but the play was negated after a questionable defensive holding penalty.
With any quarterback, luck is part of the job, but Foles has done a lot to create his own luck under Chip Kelly. The Eagles are 7-5 on the season, but are 6-1 in games Foles has thrown more than 15 passes. Foles has gone from a backup who nearly won the starting job in Kelly's first season to a serviceable spot starter while Vick was hurt to, maybe, if the season continues the way it has the last four weeks, a franchise cornerstone.
As Foles goes, so go the Eagles.
Kelly's offense is eighth in the NFL in scoring (25 points per game), fourth in yards (403.6 per game), ninth in passing yards (256.8 per game) and third in rushing yards (146.8 per game). In games Foles has started, the number for passing yards and, most importantly, points has increased. Outside of the clunker against Dallas, the numbers get even better, as the Eagles have averaged 31 points and more than 418 yards in his other starts.
Romo the Finisher
For Romo, it's never been about how he starts. It's always been about how he finishes.
Romo has developed a reputation for being un-clutch, but throughout his career that's simply not been the case. Romo's numbers get better when the game is late and, in most cases, close. Romo has a 101.7 passer rating this season when a game is within seven points and has a 107.2 rating in the second half of games—compared to an entirely mediocre 87.6 in the first half.
In the fourth quarter, Romo is 76-of-108 (.704) for 853 yards—better and more than any other quarter—with a passer rating of 107.5; a number that increases in situations in the fourth quarter when a game is within one score.
The NFC East Playoff Road
All NFC East roads seem to be heading to Dallas in Week 17, when the Eagles travel to the Cowboys in a game that could decide everything about the division championship.
The Eagles have four games remaining as well, with games at home against Detroit, at Minnesota, home against Chicago and at Dallas.
Not only do the Cowboys and Eagles both control their own destiny in NFC East, but essentially both teams control the destiny of the NFC North as well. Detroit is 7-5 and one game ahead of Chicago in the North. Green Bay, at 5-6-1, is still in contention for the division and could, in theory, have Aaron Rodgers back in time for the game against Dallas. How the North fares against both the Eagles and Cowboys will likely determine the winners of both divisions.
Given the current state of each opponent—especially the situation at quarterback in Green Bay and the general sense of mediocrity in Chicago after back-to-back losses at St. Louis and Minnesota—the Cowboys should be favored in all three games leading up to the season finale. If Detroit can win in Philadelphia next Sunday, a Chicago loss to Dallas could seal the fate of both divisions (Dallas and Detroit currently hold the tiebreakers in their respective divisions).
If both home teams win next week, Philadelphia will be a game up on Dallas in the East, and Detroit and Chicago would be tied in the North.
Of course, a lot can change from week to week, but the winner of the NFC East could have the same or better record than the winner of the NFC North. Who saw that coming at the start of the season?
The winner of the NFC East may not just get a home playoff game but could still clinch the third seed in the NFC, thereby avoiding a trip to Seattle in the divisional round of the playoffs. Moreover, the winner of the NFC East has a half-decent chance of finishing the season at 11-5 or 10-6, which is a far cry from the 7-9 record people suspected, even if that mark is only good enough for the fourth seed.
Seriously, from 7-5 to 11-5 or 10-6?
Is there a realistic chance either the Cowboys or the Eagles will finish the season 11-5? Probably not.
Eleven wins are not likely, as either team would need to run the table the rest of the season against mostly playoff contenders. But 10 wins for the eventual division champion seems probable.
Chicago is not a better team right now than either Dallas or Philadelphia. Green Bay is a mess, and even if Rodgers can come back, the Cowboys have that game at home against a defense that is playing almost as terribly as their own. Washington already has nothing to play for, which makes the December 22 game against Dallas about nothing more than pride.
For Philly, Detroit is coming to town after flat-out destroying the Packers, but that Thanksgiving game probably said more about how terrible Green Bay is than how great the Lions are right now. The fact is that Detroit turns the ball over way too much and has incredible discipline issues on defense, something Philadelphia could—and should—exploit. And while Minnesota is playing better over the last few weeks and Philadelphia's run defense has not been stellar this season, the Eagles should be heavily favored against any team that is 3-8-1 at this point in the season, Adrian Peterson notwithstanding.
Even if Dallas and Philly lose one game in the next three, that would put both teams at 9-6 heading into the final game, giving the winner a 10-6 record and the division title.
(Note: If Philadelphia is behind by one game heading into the final week of the season, Dallas will have almost certainly won the division already, as the Cowboys will own the tiebreakers of division record and/or record against common opponents if both teams end the season with identical records, having split both games.)
Super Bowl Contenders or Pretenders?
One team is guaranteed a spot in the playoffs, but that doesn't necessarily make either a Super Bowl contender in an NFC that is extremely top heavy.
But in a way, it does.
On paper, the case looks bad for Dallas. The Cowboys are 7-5, and the only team they've beaten with a winning record—heck, a record better than 5-7—is Philadelphia.
The Cowboys have the 27th-ranked rushing offense and the 32nd-ranked defense in yards per game. They're giving up 25.2 points per game—22nd in the league—but they are scoring 27.4 points per game, which is currently fourth in the league. While Dallas has just the one victory over a team with a winning record, the Cowboys do have two heartbreaking defeats to division leaders.
Dallas lost a squeaker in Week 2, falling at Kansas City 17-16 before anyone knew how good the Chiefs would be. We all remember the incredible 51-48 loss to Denver in Week 5, and if Dallas fails to make the playoffs, everyone will point to the miraculous defeat to Matthew Stafford on his fake spike and goal-line leap in a 31-30 loss to the Lions in Week 8.
The Cowboys probably should be 9-3. Of course, they're not, and great teams finish off games like the losses to Denver or Detroit. Great teams find a way to win the road game against Kansas City.
Great teams also don't get blown out by New Orleans, 49-17, during a playoff push, allowing 625 yards of offense, including 145 yards on the ground to Mark Ingram.
The Cowboys are not great, but they are pretty good, especially on offense. Dallas is also 5-1 at home this season, with the lone loss coming to Denver. How will San Francisco or Carolina feel about going to Dallas on Wild Card Weekend?
They shouldn't feel great.
Neither Wild Card leader should feel great about going to Philadelphia, either. Sure, the Eagles are just 2-4 at home, but that includes two straight wins over Washington and playoff-contending Arizona, which is by no means out of the NFC wild-card race with four games to play.
The Eagles have essentially played two completely separate seasons in Kelly's first year as head coach. Not only has the offense come alive with Foles, but the defense has been much better over the last few games as well. Since a 52-20 throttling by Denver in Week 4, the Eagles defense hasn't given up more than 21 points, holding four of the last eight opponents to 17 points or fewer. The Eagles defense bends, but is has not broken much this season.
None of this is to suggest, however, that the Eagles aren't without issues.
Despite scoring an even 300 points through 12 games—eighth in the league heading into Seattle and New Orleans on Monday night—Philadelphia has been outscored 102-58 in the fourth quarter. In the last six games, the Eagles have scored just 10 fourth-quarter points, including zero in the last four games, while giving up enough late points to make potential blowouts feel closer than they ever needed to be.
If there is a silver lining in any of that, it's that the lack of a finishing punch hasn't cost them a victory yet, but surely the Eagles need to find a way to close out teams if they have any hope of success in the playoffs.
Any Hope of Success in the Playoffs?
Forget about records. When the playoffs begin, the best team doesn't always win. It's the hottest team that usually does.
Does anyone want to face either of these teams in the playoffs, at home or on the road? The Cowboys have been a notoriously tough game on the road, and the Eagles are 5-1 on the road this season, with the only loss coming at Denver.
There are more stars than just the quarterbacks, too. I can't imagine any of the NFC Super Bowl contenders wanting to see the likes of Dez Bryant or DeSean Jackson lining up in a must-win game. LeSean McCoy? Is there a defense out there excited to see him in an elimination contest?
All the NFC buzz right now is on Seattle, Carolina, New Orleans and San Francisco, but one of those last three teams is most likely going to have to play at Dallas or Philly in the first round of the playoffs. Then one of the other three may have to host one of them the following week for a chance to get to the NFC Championship Game.
At the start of the season, the thought of that game would have felt like a laugher. The way the NFC East may finish the year, it shouldn't anymore.