Don Banks: Some team has to win NFC East, but do any of them deserve it? - Sports Illustrated

Some team has to win NFC East, but do any of them deserve it?

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Look around the rest of the league and tell me how the NFC LEast compares. Six divisions have a first-place team with at least a 10-3 record, and the seventh has Tim Tebow, the biggest story going in the NFL. Then there's the humble NFC East, which doesn't even boast an eight-game winner.

Some pennant chase.

You've got the 7-6 Giants, fresh off a four-game losing streak and back in the win column after that dramatic 37-34 comeback win at Dallas Sunday night. That's all well and good, and first place is still first place. But New York has actually been outscored this season 349-324, and has given up an average of 40.3 points in its past three games. Playoffs, here we come.

Then there are the 7-6 Cowboys, those masters of late-game disasters. Where to begin with the season Dallas has endured? The Cowboys have blown fourth-quarter leads in five of their six losses this season, and three of those were double-digit margins, including a 12-point advantage (at 34-22) in the final three-plus minutes against the Giants. Before 2011, Dallas, in the previous 51 seasons of franchise history, had only lost twice before when leading in the final quarter by double digits.

And there's more. Lots more. Dallas under head coach Jason Garrett is now 12-9 overall, and in eight of those losses the Cowboys have blown fourth quarter leads, losing those games by a combined 27 points. In Garrett's other defeat, Dallas lost by 27 points at Philadelphia, 34-7 in Week 8 of this season. In his 21-game tenure, that's Garrett's only non-overtime loss by more than four points.

This season Dallas has already blown its largest fourth-quarter lead ever, 14 points against the Jets in the regular-season opener, and its largest lead ever, 24 points, in the third quarter, at home against Detroit in Week 4. But the loss to the Giants was a potential season-ruining defeat, because instead of having a two-game lead plus a tiebreaker advantage over New York with three games to play, Dallas is now trailing the Giants via the head-to-head tiebreaker, with their Week 17, New Year's Day rematch at MetLife Stadium still looming.

I mean, even if the Cowboys do find a way to win the division and earn a playoff berth, will their tortured fans have the stomach to tune in and find out what season-ending agony awaits them in the postseason? After a head coach loses a game by icing his own kicker, as Garrett somehow managed in Week 13 at Arizona, the mind boggles at the possibilities.

And let's not forget the 5-8 Eagles in this morass of mediocrity, because remarkably enough, like Glenn Close's character in Fatal Attraction, they refuse to be entirely killed off, no matter how dire their situation. Make no mistake, Philadelphia is an extreme long-shot to win the division, but in this year's NFC East, any absurdity still seems possible.

Here's what it would take for the Eagles to send both the Giants and Cowboys home and steal away with an 8-8 division title that absolutely no one could have fathomed a few short days ago: First, Philadelphia would have to run the table, beating the Jets at home this week, the Cowboys in Dallas in Week 16, and the Redskins at home in Week 17. Of course that could happen, given we're talking about two home games and a road trip to Dallas, whom the Eagles trounced 34-7 in Week 8.

The trickier part is that Philadelphia would still need further help, with the Cowboys losing at least one more game (either this week at Tampa Bay or at the Giants in Week 17) and the Giants dropping two of their last three games to create an entirely fitting three-way tie at 8-8. The one caveat is this: If both the Cowboys and Giants win this week and get to 8-6 (and New York is home against 4-9 Washington), the Eagles are eliminated because with Dallas and New York meeting in Week 17, one of those teams is then guaranteed of finishing at least 9-7 and beating out Philadelphia.

Got that? Good, now remember that none of this is likely to matter much of anything come playoff time, because the NFC East champion isn't going anywhere in January.

Blasphemy? Not really. More like logic and common sense. In a conference where Green Bay (13-0), San Francisco (10-3) and New Orleans (10-3) are almost certain to earn the top three seeds in some order, the NFC East winner is playing for the No. 4 seed and its fate seems a foregone conclusion. I actually like the chances of wild-card favorites such as Atlanta and Detroit (both 8-5) making some noise in the playoffs more so than the NFC East winner, because no matter who comes out of the division, they're a flawed team and will quickly have those weaknesses exposed in the postseason.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning is having an "elite'' season, his best ever. His franchise-record six fourth-quarter comebacks this year have single-handedly kept New York alive in the East. But New York's secondary is abysmal, it's 32nd-ranked running game only sporadically viable, and there just aren't enough Jason Pierre-Pauls to go around on the defensive front seven.

Good for the Giants if they rally to a division title and once again save coach Tom Coughlin's job, but I'm not hearing any echoes of their memorable 2007 Super Bowl run so far, even if they did push the unbeaten Packers to the brink 10 days ago at home. It'll be more like the fate met by the other three playoff teams Coughlin has built in New York, the one-and-done postseason appearances of 2005, 2006 and 2008. The Giants have almost always struggled in the season's second half under Coughlin, and even with the big comeback win at Dallas, New York is 1-4 after its 6-2 start, and 25-36 in the second half of seasons since 2004.

In some ways, Dallas's strengths and weak spots mirror New York's. Quarterback Tony Romo played his butt off against the Giants (4 touchdowns, no interceptions, 141.3 rating) and his 26 touchdowns, nine picks and career-best 100.6 passer rating have put the Cowboys in position to win most games. But the team's secondary is glaringly bad and must be addressed in next year's draft. As for the Dallas running game, it was a strength for a while there, but rookie DeMarco Murray broke his right ankle in the loss to the Giants and is gone for the season, leaving the Cowboys to rely once again on the talented but streaky Felix Jones.

The Dallas defense, under new coordinator Rob Ryan, started off strong this season, but it has wilted in some key situations down the stretch. Late-game defensive breakdowns against both Arizona and New York contributed heavily to those gut-wrenching losses, and suddenly the near-perfect season of rookie kicker Dan Bailey has been marred by all the icing/timeout drama of the past two weeks. Add it all up and Dallas' once-familiar December swoon issue has returned again, with the Cowboys' record in the final month standing at 0-2 and counting.

As for Philadelphia, in the unlikely event the Eagles make the playoffs after registering as the biggest disappointment in recent NFL history through the season's first 12 games, I would submit a division championship by them would indeed speak volumes about how far the once-feared NFC East has fallen. Philadelphia's only consistent qualities this season have been the depth of its underachievement, and the creativity its star-studded roster has shown in finding new ways to lose fourth-quarter leads, mostly at home before its rabid and frustrated fan base.

With three weeks to go in the regular season, one of these imperfect vessels known as the Giants, Cowboys or Eagles is going to emerge and wind up wearing the crown of a champion. Or at least some souvenir hats and T-shirts with a gaudy 2011 NFC East Champions logo emblazoned on them.

Forgive me if I'm not awash in anticipation.