by Justin Henry (@cynicjrh)
NFC East Beat Writer/Missing Dick Clark
One never knows how the season is going to shake out before it begins. After all, here we are in Week 17, and teams like Indianapolis, Washington, and Seattle are threats to make playoff noise, while the likes of Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and (likely) the Giants will be out of work before the ball drops in Time's Square.
When I applied for CHFF's NFC East position back in early August, how was I to know that I'd be covering a dynamic rookie quarterback, fallen Super Bowl Champions, the end of a 14-year head coaching run, and the last regular season game, airing in prime time, that will solidify the NFC's playoff picture?
There's been plenty of excitement elsewhere. Tom Pollin's covered Calvin Johnson's pursuit of 2000 receiving yards and Adrian Peterson's run at the 2000-yard rushing club in his NFC North reviews.
Kennedy Ross has had occasion with his AFC East work to tell the tale of the Patriots' continued excellence, as well as the Marx Brothers-like slapstick that has become commonplace with the Jets.
There's never a dull moment in this league as long as you look hard enough, and it's safe to say that the NFC East has provided four months of drama, excitement, twists, and turns.
And here we are, with one week left, and still plenty to be decided, thanks to the nature of the (b)east.
1. What Washington Must Do to Win
Real simple: the Redskins win, they claim their first division title since 1999. A loss for them leaves the door for a Wild Card spot open, but only a crack.
Nothing is guaranteed for one of the NFL's most dynamic offensive teams. So to err on the side of caution, a win under the lights of FedEx Field is a must.
The Washington Redskins' a six-game winning streak includes their Thanksgiving pounding of the Dallas Cowboys in JerryLand, in which they won 38-31. Close as the final was, the Redskins had Dallas pinned 28-3 at halftime, and unwisely let the Cowboys mount a furious second half comeback.
The NFL's current No. 4 rushing offense (5.1 YPA) brought such pain to Dallas on Turkey Day, combining for 149 yards on 32 carries (4.66 YPA) and a touchdown. Alfred Morris contributed 113 yards on 24 carries (4.71 YPA) and a touchdown to the onslaught.
Robert Griffin III also shined in his first trip to Big D, throwing for 304 yards and 4 touchdowns, each to a different receiver. Other than an interception in the homestretch, RG3 played as close to perfection as one could with the national spotlight shining on him.
The Redskins are 5-1 when they top 400 yards of offense, and Dallas is 1-3 when allowing such. For the Skins to win, just do what they do best: smother early, smother often, and bury deep. There's no such thing as too much offense in a do-or-maybe-die game.
2. What Dallas Must Do to Win
No pressure on the Cowboys. You know, just win in front of a hostile crowd who will be watching one of the great turnaround stories complete their playoff bid. And, you know, if Dallas loses, they miss the playoffs for the third straight year.
Like I said, no pressure at all.
Before their rough overtime loss to New Orleans this past Sunday, the Cowboys won 3 straight to keep their playoff dreams alive and feasible. During this four game run, Tony Romo has thrown 10 touchdowns against 1 interception, and topped 300 yards 3 times.
6 of those touchdowns have gone into the hands of Dez Bryant, who's also amassed 431 yards over the last quartet of games.
2 of those victories came against teams striding just as valiantly for a playoff berth: the Bengals (20-19 in the Jerry Brown memorial game) and the fading Steelers (27-24 in OT).
Of those last 4 games, the lowest amount of offensive yards given up by Dallas is 336 to Cincinnati. Despite the play of DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Morris Claiborne, and Brandon Carr, they can be overpowered. Washington proved it once, and they're not inhibited from doing it again.
Dallas needs their absolute best defensive performance on Sunday night, and they need Romo to continue his recent trend of fine gamesmanship. If they do, winning the NFC East will be that much simpler.
3. What New York Must Do to Win
I wouldn't rule out using some sort of astral projection/mind control thing to convince Minnesota, Chicago, and Dallas to all roll over and play dead come December 30. The New York Giants also need to save some of that telepathic death ray for their own opponent.
Even their game isn't a guarantee: they're up against a 4-11 team who garnered one of their 4 wins over New York 3 months ago.
The Philadelphia Eagles have descended a long way from that game, as injuries, coach firings, quarterback controversies, and defensive ineptitude caused a 3-1 team to plummet. They lost 10 of their next 11, and assured them a damn fine draft position.
Michael Vick will return for his final game in midnight green, leading a team that Nick Foles had led to a come-from-behind win in December over another desperate team. Tampa Bay's loss to the Eagles on December 9 aided in their ruination, just as the Eagles can ruin their rival's season on the final day.
The Giants have won 2 of their last 7 games, and their injury-plagued defense (Kenny Phillips is still hobbled) has given up 370+ yards in each of the last 4 games.
Eli Manning needs to snap out of it (9 TD, 7 INT, 56.1 percent completions in the last 7 games) and attack the Eagles secondary, which has played better in recent weeks. The Giants can only help their own cause by playing like the champions they're supposed to be, even in a likely vain effort.
4. What Philadelphia Must Do to Win
The Eagles aren't playing for anything on Sunday except a chance to land some big prize like Luke Joeckel or Manti Te'o in the April draft. They've been done for a few weeks now, leaving almost nothing for them to gain in this game except mean-spirited spoilerage.
Sure, they could lose, hope Oakland beats San Diego, and land the No. 3 draft pick, and go into the offseason with a new vision and a chance to land a dynamic rookie with the need for trading.
Or they could help ruin New York's year.
Andy Reid, on his way to San Diego or Cleveland or a year off or whatever, knows enough about the Giants' rough situation (turnovers, inconsistent defense, lack of consistent running, tough schedule) that he could leave with his head held high, even with a public firing.
Maybe this time, he'll actually run the ball. The Giants have the fifth worst run defense in the NFL (4.64 YPA given up), and a healthy combo of LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown would certainly put the screws to a desperate team.
The Giants also have the third worst third down pecentage on defense, allowing 43.48 percent of plays to succeed. If Michael Vick's looking to increase his free agency value, he's got a class of pushovers to do it against.
Other than avoiding New York's pass rush, which can still hurt Philly's bad offensive line even with its recent spottiness, the Eagles may enjoy their finest offensive output of the season.
5. Mini Power Rankings
1. Washington (9-6)
The Redskins have not won a playoff game since January 7, 2006, when they edged out the Buccaneers 17-10 in Tampa. The quarterback matchup was Mark Brunell against Chris Simms, notable because Brunell was drafted just before the retirement of Chris' father Phil.
2. Dallas (8-7)
The "last day" of the regular season hasn't been kind to the Cowboys in recent years. Last season, faced with a do-or-die scenario for the NFC East, they lost to the Giants in MetLife Stadium. 3 years earlier, they were blown out by the Eagles for the final Wild Card spot.
3. New York (8-7)
Chin up, Giants fans. The Steelers missed the playoffs the last 2 times they won a Super Bowl, and the 2003 Buccaneers let the hangover of victory keep them from having a chance to repeat. At least for the Steelers, they've been able to get back to the Super Bowl both times.
4. Philadelphia (4-11)
1976 was the last year that an Eagles coach led the team to 4 or less wins and still had his job the following year. That man was Dick Vermeil, who inherited a team also 4-10 from Mike McCormack, and eventually built a champion. That was a beginning, but this is an ending.