Someone has to win the NFC East. The rules say so. Which team it's going to be, though, is just as unclear through 13 weeks of the season as it was way back at the start of September.
Dallas threw the NFL's worst division into further disarray Monday night by pulling out what turned out to be a wild 19–16 victory at Washington. The result leaves three 5–7 teams tied atop the standings (Washington, New York and Philadelphia), with the Matt Cassel-led Cowboys somehow still hanging around at 4–8.
“We're focused on ourselves,” said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, “and we've given ourselves an opportunity to stay in it.”
The final 1:45 of Dallas's victory was so jaw-droppingly chaotic that it nearly offset the very sloppy, uneven 58-plus minutes of action that preceded it.
With the teams seemingly unable to score a touchdown, tied at 9–9 and staring straight at overtime, Washington's DeSean Jackson fielded a punt deep in his own territory, reversed course all the way back to his goal line and eventually fumbled. Dallas recovered and punched in a Darren McFadden touchdown with 1:14 left. Had McFadden gone down shy of the goal line, the Cowboys likely could have run out the clock and attempted a chip-shot field goal for the win. But he would have deprived everyone of the further insanity to come.
Washington's Rashad Ross ran the ensuing kickoff back to his team's 42 and the refs tacked on 15 more yards for a Dallas face mask. Four plays later, Jackson somewhat redeemed himself with a deep touchdown grab to tie the game.
There still were 44 seconds remaining, however. The Cowboys used them to reach field-goal range, and Dan Bailey bombed a 54-yarder for the win.
“The emotional roller coaster that you go through is pretty intense,” Cassel said. “But the way our guys finished and the resilience that we showed says a lot about this team.”
The end was thrilling. The journey there was a mess, at least as far as the two offenses were concerned. The result jolted the NFC East door even more wide open than it was prior to Monday, with all four teams now eyeing a division crown and a playoff spot, no matter how undeserved those dreams may be.
Let's start with the Cowboys. Just about everyone rolled their eyes when they opted to keep Tony Romo off injured reserve following his latest injury, their reasoning being that they wanted him available should they rally to make the postseason. That dream is still a bit of a long shot—they still have to climb over every other NFC East team—but it's far more possible now.
It's hard to argue that they didn't earn the Monday night win, either. Demarcus Lawrence sacked Kirk Cousins twice on Washington's opening possession, and an unexpectedly blitz-heavy Dallas defense stayed in Cousins's face for much of the night. The offense was far from brilliant. Cassel, though, did manage to hit a couple of key deep passes—one to Terrance Williams, another to Bryant—and hooked up with Bryant twice on the game's final drive, thereby giving Bailey a shot.
Bailey's game-winner gave Dallas its long-awaited first victory this season with a QB other than Romo starting. Prior to the night, Washington could not have envisioned itself being the victim of that breakthrough.
While the Redskins hadn't exactly been looking like world-beaters, they had put together an impressive home run. Last week's crucial victory over the Giants was their fifth straight at FedEx Field, and their offense had been explosive in several of those victories. Cousins's numbers were indicative of that performance: 10 touchdowns, zero interceptions and an average of 287 yards passing during the 5–0 home streak.
But Dallas never gave him a chance to settle in on Monday. Lawrence set the tone early, then linebacker Sean Lee carried the torch from there. He was all over the field, finishing with 13 tackles and a sack.
RB Matt Jones provided a brief spark, but Washington could not sustain its run game—one of Washington's three field goals came after Dallas stuffed Jones twice in short-yardage situations inside the red zone. The Cousins-led passing attack slowed, too, in the face of Dallas's aggressive approach.
“I think we're in a position to compete for the division,” Cousins said. “It's all there in front of us. We made it tougher on ourselves by not winning.”
No doubt, that last sentiment is true: Washington had a chance to maintain control of the NFC East with a win Monday and fell flat instead.
He's also right that this was far from a fatal blow. The East is in shambles, top to bottom, from the Cowboys scratching and clawing minus Romo to the three co-leaders unable to sustain any success for longer than a week or two.
Good luck figuring out which team is the NFC East's best. Monday's debacle-turned-thriller did nothing to settle the argument.