by Justin Henry (@cynicjrh)
NFC East Beat Writer/Enrolled in the Jelly of the Month Club
On October 14, with a crushing win over the 49ers, and an Eagles loss to the Lions, the New York Giants took sole possession of first place in the NFC East.
It took 2 months, but that designation has changed.
New York's lost 4 of their last 6 games, while the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys have pieced together favorable second halves in a bid to catch the defending Super Bowl Champions.
After Week 15, the Giants no longer find themselves slotted in one of the top four seedings, instead residing as the No. 8 team in the NFC.
Oh, how they may wish that enterprising NFL had expanded the playoff format for this season.
With both Washington and Dallas' victories on Sunday, the Redskins take control of the NFC East lead (fourth seed), and Dallas leaps past the Giants due to a tiebreaker, giving Dallas the right of way. Coupled with the Bears' loss, the Vikings temporary move into the sixth seed.
The race isn't over, but the horse out of New York is pulling up lame, while others gallop past.
1. No RG3, No Problem in Win Over Cleveland
Robert Griffin III was officially ruled out with a knee injury, so the Redskins had to turn to a less heralded, although sometimes-capable, rookie in Kirk Cousins.
The Redskins had the No. 3 team passer rating (103.5) headed into the game, and it seemed absurd to think Cousins could improve upon that average, even against a 5-8 team like the Cleveland Browns.
Plagued only with one interception, Cousins would do just that, leading the Skins to a 38-21 stomping of the Browns.
Cousins' rating for the day was 104.4 (26/37, 329, 2 TD, 1 INT), which RG3 has only bested in 4 of his 13 starts. Not a knock on Griffin, but an idea of what a good game Cousins had in a must-win for Washington.
But he wasn't alone. 3 of Washington's 5 touchdowns came on the ground; 2 from Alfred Morris, and the other from Evan Royster. Combined, the running game added 122 yards to the offensive onslaught.
The Redskins accounted for 430 net yards of offense, the third time over the last 4 games that they've topped 400, and the sixth time over that plateau this season.
The Redskins defense also deserves credit, holding the Browns to just 58 yards on the ground. That's the best output by Washington this season, and the first time an opponent has been held below 100 since the Eagles (91) on November 11.
With the win, Dallas has won 5 straight, the longest winning streak by an NFC East team this season.
2. Giants Take the Day Off in Atlanta
Besides Jason Hanson and Adam Vinatieri, you won't find many players in the NFL who were around the last time the New York Giants were shut out.
On December 1, 1996, the Philadelphia Eagles shut the Giants out 24-0 (oddly enough, the last time the Eagles won via shut-out), but the Giants weren't defending champions in that game.
The 34-0 loss to the Atlanta Falcons was the worst defeat for a reigning Super Bowl champion in NFL history, and the Giants worst defeat since losing to the Vikings 44-7 in the final game of the 2009 season.
Matt Ryan was utterly dominant, going 23 for 28, for 270 yards and 3 touchdowns against a Giants defense missing Prince Amukamara and Kenny Phillips.
Ryan's rating for the day was 142.6, his best of the season; impressive, considering it's his third top topping 130.0.
Eli Manning had the opposite day: 13 of 25, 161 yards, no touchdowns, and 2 picks, good (bad?) for a 38.9 rating.
This game was Manning's worst rating-wise in 5 years, when he threw for a 32.2 rating against Buffalo on December 23, 2007.
Over the past 8 games, Manning has thrown 9 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. This gives him 15 INTs on the year, when he had just 16 last year. His 20 touchdowns are also well off of the 29 from a year ago.
3. Cowboys Edge Steelers in OT Thriller
The Pittsburgh Steelers came into Sunday afternoon's game in Dallas with the knowledge that Cincinnati had leapfrogged them for the No. 6 seed.
Knowing they needed a win over the Cowboys to maintain their theoretical playoff spot, Pittsburgh fell behind early, came roaring back to take the lead, and then blew it with sloppy mistakes in the final minutes, going down 27-24 in overtime.
Opponents could only muster a 77.4 passer rating against Pittsburgh this season, the seventh lowest average in the league.
Tony Romo, however, spit in the face of that statistic by posting his fourth best performance of the season, putting up a rating of 111.3, on 30 of 42 passing for 341 yards, 2 touchdowns, and no picks.
Miles Austin and Dez Bryant would prove to be the biggest recipients of Romo's positive outpouring, with Austin catching 7 balls for 79 yards, and Bryant catching 4 for 59 and a touchdown, despite his broken finger.
As the game wore on, particularly after the 24-24 tie, Pittsburgh was plagued with misfortunes, such as consecutive sacks by Dallas on what would have been the winning drive, as well as Antonio Brown going out of bounds inopportunely.
Pittsburgh's defenders also gave up big gains by trying to shoulder tackle rather than wrap up, though many modern players are just as guilty.
Ben Roethlisberger threw the killing interception to Brandon Carr in OT, and Mike Wallace missed a big chance to tag him down. Instead, Carr made it to the 2, and Dan Bailey tacked on the winning kick.
4. The Eagles Factor
The 4-10 Philadelphia Eagles are long since out of the playoff running, and might be content to play down for the best possible draft pick.
The Eagles could win out, watch their fellow non-factor teams lose out, and theoretically end up with the fifteenth pick, but since they're nestled in with the third pick behind Kansas City and Jacksonville, getting an impact player like Manti Te'o, or maybe even beleaguered corner Tyrann Mathieu, seems a wise move for the franchise's future.
But that doesn't mean they won't play a role in how the playoff picture pans out.
The Eagles' final 2 games will involve their NFC East nemeses: a home game vs. the Redskins, and a road finale against the Giants; the city of Reid's last playoff victory.
So while playing for 2013 seems viable, getting a chance to spoil for their hated rivals is just as tempting.
Last season, an already-mathematically-eliminated Eagles team dropped Dallas on Christmas Eve, at a point in which Dallas was fighting for a playoff spot, so don't dismiss Philly's chances over the final 2 weeks.
5. The Road Ahead
Washington will get a chance to bring their division record to 4-1, and solidify their conference record, with the Eagles coming out of the gate. Philly's been at home since their Tampa victory on December 9, and the Redskins are coming off a grueling battle in Cleveland.
Dallas faces a hot-and-cold Saints team, one with a suspended head coach once rumored to be a flight risk to coach the Cowboys in 2013. The Saints whooped a tough Buccaneers team 41-0 on Sunday, and could do the same to another team in desperation mode.
As for the Giants, the Ravens loom large, fresh off their own humbling at the hands of Denver, losing 34-17. Baltimore needs a win to keep division title hopes alive, while the Giants need a win to try and pull back ahead of Washington and Dallas.