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NFC Least: Defense the culprit in NFL’s weakest division
The glory days of the NFC East are long gone and the struggles of all four of its teams this season is fueling hope that the Washington Redskins are not done in 2013 despite a 1-3 start.
In most years that wouldn't be the case, especially with two losses to NFC rivals Detroit and Green Bay and another in the division to Philadelphia. But that is also the lone victory for the 1-3 Eagles. The New York Giants are 0-4 and have been blown out three weeks in a row.
The only NFC East team at .500 is Dallas (2-2) and even the Cowboys may not stay there long with the undefeated Denver Broncos (4-0) coming to town this weekend after rampaging through the league the first four weeks.
"We're not gonna feed into the division standings or everybody's record," Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick told reporters this week. "It's irrelevant right now. What's most important is the next game that we have to play, not worrying about who's winning in our [division]. We'll see where we stand in December."
But clearly the NFC East hasn't been up to par with the rest of the league. Only the AFC North also lacks a team above .500, but even that division has three teams at 2-2. Things can change quickly in the NFL, however. Washington proved that last season by rebounding from a 3-6 record to take the division title and reach the playoffs with seven consecutive wins to end the year.
"Remember, this is a long season. Don't get carried away with things that happen very early or very late," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. "Just stay the course. Understand your objective and your goals and try to get better each day. A lot of those games can go either way and people get healthy or they get injured. There is a lot that goes into it."
But if the Cowboys can't beat Denver this weekend and fall to 2-3, every team in the division will have a losing record. The chances of any of the four cracking nine wins then becomes remote. The Eagles can bury the Giants when those teams meet in New York on Sunday.
The reason for their issues is obvious: Terrible defense. None of these teams can stop anyone. Philadelphia ranks dead last in the NFL in yards allowed (1,787), one spot ahead of Washington (1,762). New York is 22nd (1,537) and Dallas, while strong against the run, is a disaster defending the pass and ranks 20th overall (1,529). Unless that side of the ball is corrected, the NFC East will send just its division winner to the playoffs for the fourth year in a row.
The Redskins are the first team to get a weekend off with their bye falling this week. They then travel to Dallas for a nationally televised Sunday night game on Oct. 13, which could actually vault Washington into first place if things break right. After such a disastrous start, that was unthinkable.
"It was good to finish with a win," Redskins defensive backs coach Raheem Morris said of his team's 24-14 victory in Oakland last Sunday. "We hit a mulligan there with our start to the season, but we can come back to this thing and be right back to where we started from."
Since the NFL rearranged into eight separate four-team divisions in 2002 with the addition of the expansion Houston Texans, six teams out of 88 have won their division with a 9-7 record and qualified for the postseason.
Twice a .500 team has made it as a division winner at 8-8. Both times that occurred in the AFC West, most recently in 2011 when Denver won a three-way tiebreak with San Diego and Oakland to take the crown. And once, infamously, a 7-9 team reached the playoffs as a division champ. That came in 2010 when Seattle earned the tiebreak over NFC West rival St. Louis.
Six division winners with a record of 9-7 or worse have won the wild-card round at home and then lost on the road in the conference semifinals. Two others lost at home in the wild-card round.
And those teams haven't exactly set themselves up for banner postseason runs — with one major exception. The Giants won the NFC East with a 9-7 record in 2011 and went on to win the Super Bowl, stunning the New England Patriots in the championship game. The fact that even winless New York maintains hope shows, with a quarter of the season already finished, how wide-open the NFC East really is.
"Guys know [the division's struggles] and [coach Tom Coughlin] brought that up again the other day," New York quarterback Eli Manning told reporters this week. "We understand there's a lot of football left to be played, but we've got to start playing better football. We're a better team than what we've been playing. But you have to go out there and prove it."
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