When the current NFL season is over, we will certainly hear debates regarding a possible change to a seeded playoff system in lieu of the one we have today. And everyone who tries to make a case will probably dwell on the lousy division champion that is bound to emerge from the NFC East.
After Dallas' road win over Washington on Monday Night Football, things were left a mess in the NFL's most colorful division, with all four teams sporting a losing record and no clear favorite on sight. In fact, with 3 teams tied at 5-7, and the same Cowboys being just a game behind with a pitiful 4-8 mark, it will take a 4-0 mark to close the season only to avoid having a division champ that is .500 or worse.
However, such a streak seems unlikely and we will probably be seeing only the sixth playoff team that advanced to the postseason with a record of .500 or worse over a full 16-game schedule (1985 Browns, 2008 Chargers, 2010 Seahawks, 2011 Broncos, 2014 Panthers). With the other 5 NFC playoff spots all but secured –Carolina and Arizona will win their divisions, while Green Bay and Minnesota seem safe in the North, and Seattle is ready to launch – only the East appears in position to provide some drama in the final quarter of the season.
Despite the mediocrity of a future division winner hosting a playoff game as an underdog, it shall be interesting to see how the East is decided. Today we take a look at each team's chances, and rank them from least to most likely to take the division and enter the playoffs as a bad 4-seed. Leaving aside all the crazy tie-breaking scenarios that could emerge by the end, or the possibility that we could see a 6-10 playoff team, here is how we see it playing out.
#4 – Dallas Cowboys (4-8)
3-2 vs. NFC East
5.5% DVOA playoff odds
10% ELO playoff odds
The season has been a rollercoaster for the Cowboys, who have endured the loss of Tony Romo while losing 7 of the 8 games he hasn't started. Of course, Romo is lost for the rest of the season and the hopes of the franchise rest on the shoulders of Matt Cassell, who remains a respectable backup with a penchant for bad interceptions. The usual Dez Bryant circus, now joined by the Greg Hardy endless backlash continue to make the Cowboys must-see TV for all the wrong reasons, but no one can deny they remain a compelling team.
For all of Dallas' troubles, they have gone a 2-5 in one-score games, sometimes falling victim to terrible lucky bounces. That started to change a bit in their win at Washington, and the Cowboys could be getting some positive regression even in a world without Romo. They will need that and more if they are to make some noise, as their remaining schedule includes three games out of their division against playoff contenders, who have combined to go 21-15 so far. Dallas is already a big underdog for its visit to Green Bay on Week 14, and should also get some points versus the Jets and Bills.
The best-case scenario for the Cowboys would seem to somehow go 2-1 over the next three weeks and expect the rest of the division to stumble and set a winner-take-all matchup with Washington on Week 17. Given how each team they are set to face is in a similar need to win, it seems highly unlikely.
#3 – Washington Redskins (5-7)
2-2 vs. NFC East
31% DVOA playoff odds
19% ELO playoff odds
The Redskins lost a precious opportunity to seize control of the division by dropping a home game to the Cowboys, which came after the team had started the season 5-1 at FedEx Field. The loss dropped Washington's playoff odds by nearly 20%, and evidenced some hard flaws the team had managed to keep afloat. The Redskins have been below league average in all relevant offensive and defensive rankings, while being the worst team in the East in advanced adjusted stats.
Trusting Kirk Cousins to stay turnover-free is always a risky proposition, but that is what the Redskins will need to stay in the hunt. Washington is 0-5 so far on the road, and they get to play 3 of their final 4 games away from home, which doesn't bode well for a franchise that is always close to danger. The road games include a stop against the frisky Bears, and division showdowns versus the Eagles and Cowboys, which could end up deciding the whole thing. The lone home game will take place in Week 15 versus Buffalo, which isn't a gimme by any means.
In the end, a 2-2 finish seems like the most likely way the Redskins' season will play out, as their road woes should play out terribly. They will also shine a light on Cousins' future as a franchise quarterback, which could be a scary thing for Washington fans.
#2 – Philadelphia Eagles (5-7)
2-2 vs. NFC East
42.7% DVOA playoff odds
43% ELO playoff odds
Almost as much as Washington's odds dropped after Week 13, Philadelphia's own rose following an unlikely, impressive win on the road. The Eagles may have needed a unique set of circumstances to beat the Patriots (including 3 straight return touchdowns), but that doesn't take away from the fact that this team did the unthinkable after they were left for dead following a couple of dreadful performances. It seems as if Chip Kelly still has a few tricks up his sleeve, but can they be ridden all the way to the playoffs?
By many indicators, it is weird to try to make sense of the Eagles, who have mixed strong wins and confounding losses with ease. However, having Sam Bradford back after a short-term injury provides hope that the talent is there to make a run as the season comes to a close. Also, the Eagles have 3 straight home games starting on Week 14, having to face the Bills, Cardinals, and Redskins in the process. The final game could end up being a de-facto playoff game versus the Giants in New York, a place where the Eagles tend to do well.
Of all the 4 teams in the division, the Eagles look to have the best chance of going 3-1 or even surprise at 4-0, but the Arizona game can be penciled in as a loss and the other three are well up in the air. It all comes down to what version of Philadelphia arrives at the stadium, and that may be the hardest thing to predict in the NFL.
#1 – New York Giants (5-7)
2-2 vs. NFC East
21.5% DVOA playoff odds
28% ELO playoff odds
One of the most depressing stats of the year shows that if games ended after 58 minutes of play, the Giants would be 10-2. And yet, they are 5-7 after a seemingly endless array of collapses and bad coaching, capped by blowing another double-digit lead in Week 13. In fact, the Giants are the only NFC East team with a positive point differential, with their expected win total plotting them a full win better than they are. Going 2-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less will do that to a team.
The good news for the Giants is that they seem to be at their best when they are written off, and only a tiny bit of positive regression could be enough to propel them back into the playoffs. Road dates at Miami and Minnesota are mixed with home games versus Carolina and the Eagles. At this point, it could be argued that the Giants could just as easily go 4-0 or 0-4 in these contests. The high upside and variance of Eli Manning and his crew make the Giants a somewhat scary playoff team.
After their latest collapse, I see Tom Coughlin finally taking the reins and setting up his team to play to its potential. The Giants have the 7th-highest scoring offense in the league, and that should play well down the stretch, even if they end up becoming one of the worst division champs of all time.