The Vast Decline of the NFC East
The NFC East, once the best division in the NFL, has been reduced to ridicule and memedom in recent seasons
I am a Green Bay Packers fan, so why am I talking about the NFC East? The reason is simple: my dad is a longtime Dallas Cowboys fan, and when I was a kid, one of the many things my dad told me was how good the NFC East was. It was true back then. The National Football Conference's Eastern Division was once the best division in the entire league. Back then, it was three divisions per conference, which was the format that had existed since the AFL-NFL merger back in 1970. Being an NFC guy, I took notice on how the divisions operated, and it was the same for several years: the West wasn't good (49ers ran away with it every year), the Central was moderate (the Packers were the class of the division for years, though the rivals had their moments), and the East was just beastly.
From 1970 until 2001, the NFC East consisted of the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Giants, the Philadelphia Eagles, the St. Louis (later Phoenix, currently Arizona) Cardinals, and the then-named Washington Redskins (currently the Washington Football Team, though a new name will be announced and set for 2022 and beyond). While watching as a kid, I noticed that the NFC East often had three or even four playoff teams every year, but for most of the division's tenure, it was the Cowboys on top. The Giants also had their moments, as did Washington, as those two and Dallas often won their share of Super Bowls. At the time, the Eagles and Cardinals weren't winning championships, but the Eagles had proven to be as good as the other three teams. Even though the Cardinals were often a fifth wheel in that division, they had their good moments as well.
Remember the NFC's 13 straight Super Bowl wins (1984-1996)? The NFC East won seven of those 13 Super Bowls. The Giants won XXI and XXV, Washington won XXII and XXVI, and Dallas won XXVII, XXVIII, and XXX. The Cardinals, even with the move to Arizona in 1988, remained in the NFC East until the divisions were realigned in 2002, which saw the Cardinals placed in the NFC West. The four-team NFC East remained a pretty good division for years, but recent seasons have seen a vast decline.
Since the 2010 season, we have seen a number of division winners with mediocre or worse records. 2010 was the year that the Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West at 7-9, becoming the first team to reach the playoffs with a losing record (in a 16-game season), as well as the first team to win a division with a losing record (also in a 16-game season). During this stretch, the NFC East had become that bad division on four occasions, but it's the last two seasons that really stand out.
2019 saw the Cowboys and Eagles in a tight division race, but that was only because both teams kept losing...and losing...and losing. For a number of weeks, a .500 or worse record led the NFC East, leading to fans mocking the division and voicing a belief that the entire division should be eliminated--a belief that had been repeated by many analysts. The Eagles' late winning tear saw them win the division at 9-7, which is a winning record, but the worst possible one (without ties). It was also a four game decline from their Super Bowl championship season in 2017.
As bad as 2019 was, 2020 was worse. After Week 1, the renamed Washington Football Team was the only team from the division who won a game, and at 1-0, it would be the only time during the season that an NFC East team had a winning record. The NFC East was so bad that season that the Giants still had a shot at winning the division even though they were 1-7. It became a foregone conclusion that a losing record would win the division, but history was almost made in the worst way in the final week of the 2020 season.
Entering Week 17, Washington was leading at 6-9, Dallas had the same record but was behind on tiebreakers, and the Giants--at 5-10--were still alive in the division race. The only team eliminated was Philadelphia, who was 4-10-1, but had the chance to be the ultimate spoiler. On January 3, 2021, the Cowboys faced the Giants in an early game, and the Eagles faced Washington in the season finale. The scenarios were as follows: Washington could win the East with a win in the finale; a loss would give the NFC East to the DAL/NYG winner.
In a close game, the Giants defeated (and eliminated) Dallas, meaning that they were a Washington loss away from winning the division at 6-10, which would have made them the first team to reach the playoffs after a 1-7 start, and the first 10-loss playoff team in NFL history. However, Washington defeated the Eagles in the finale, giving them the division crown at 7-9. Even so, that's pretty bad. The NFL was very close to seeing a 6-10 division champion in a season that had a bunch of 10+ win Wild Cards, an eliminated 10-6 team, and the 49ers in last place in the NFC West at 6-10--and that's only because of the plethora of injuries they had; a healthy Niners team means that whoever finished last in that division, would win the NFC East.
Though as horrid as the 2020 NFC East was, even they had their moments. Washington handed the 11-0 Steelers their first loss of the season; in fact, Dallas and Philly each came close to beating the Steelers that year. While four of New York's six wins were in the division (including two vs Washington), one of their two non-division wins was a road win against the Seahawks. In fact, New York won three games against teams who would make the playoffs that year. And it was Philadelphia who ended the Saints' nine-game winning streak that season. This division is capable of good things. So why is it terrible? It could be a lot of things. Only Washington has a truly good coach. Only Dallas has a superstar QB. The Giants and Eagles seem to get in their own way. It's a plethora of factors.
I'd like to think that the NFC East will be better this year. I'd like to think we won't see another season full of mediocrity, memes, and jokes at the division's expense. I'd like to really think that, though if the last two seasons are any indication, the third year won't necessarily be the charm.
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