The proud, tradition-rich division known as the NFC East has been transformed almost overnight into a barren, nearly unrecognizable wasteland.
But that's a good thing for Redskins fans.
True, the division that Bruce Allen very recently called "The SEC of the NFL" looks like it has a member or two who might have trouble stopping Alabama's offense. The current state of the division calls to mind the punchline-spawning NFC West of 2010. There, before Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh had fully rehabilitated the division, every team in the West allowed more points than it scored and finished with a losing record. Carroll's Seahawks "won" the title with a 7-9 campaign (but did go on to upset the Saints in the playoffs).
Now, in 2013, we see an NFC East led for the moment by the 2-2 Cowboys. What may be more noteworthy, and a better indicator of the division's early-season struggles, is this: The Redskins have the second-best scoring defense in the NFC East, despite surrendering an average of 28 points per game!
Someone has to win this thing. I looked it up. It's in the rulebook. And, with that title will come a home playoff game. With Dallas set to play perhaps the NFL's best team, the Denver Broncos, it's within the realm of possibility that the October 13th Washington / Dallas game could be for first place in the division.
As nuts as it may seem, the Redskins are very much in the thick of the race. But mediocrity is a double-edged sword in this case, as even the lowly Giants aren't quite eliminated yet.
With a baseline of horrible play established in the first quarter of the season, let's look at what each team will have to do to assert itself and emerge with a divisional title, along with a (totally unscientific) percent chance of claiming the East championship:
New York Giants (0-4): The Giants have not only lost their first four games, but they've done so in alarming fashion. Of particular concern is that, after New York lost to the Chiefs 31-7, the general consensus from the talking heads after the game was that this performance (again, a 31-7 loss) was a major improvement over the previous week's debacle against Carolina. Indeed, the 31 points the Giants allowed against Kansas City was the lowest point total the New York defense has surrendered all season.
Tom Coughlin has put together a resume with more than one impressive in-season turnaround. Bouncing back from this start would be something else altogether. A game against the Eagles on Sunday represents the Giants' last shot at even getting close to a break-even season, much less winning the division. A victory could be the first step toward one of the greatest rebounds in NFL history. A defeat might be the first step toward the end of Coughlin's tenure. Notwithstanding their defensive woes and some major issues along the offensive line, I don't think the Giants are quite as bad as they seem at the moment. But they are pretty bad. Title Chances: 2%
Philadelphia Eagles (1-3): After the Eagles beat Washington in Chip Kelly's debut, a certain writer pointed out that the praise heaped upon Kelly should probably have been held in escrow until the end of the season. After all, other successful collegiate coaches began with a debut victory and were back in the college ranks within three years. Since that win, the Eagles have lost three straight: The first two at home, and the last coming by 32 points.
The aforementioned Giants game is critical for both squads, but the Eagles have a real chance to make a move. If Philly can win this week, they get the dysfunctional Bucs the next week, followed by the Cowboys at home, a rematch against the Giants, and then a game at Oakland. All of those are winnable. The Eagles have some weapons, and Philadelphia has the easiest run of games over the next month-plus of all the NFC East teams. Going at least 4-1 over that stretch is a must. If they can get rolling and win that first Dallas game, Philly may still wind up as the front-runner. That's a fairly big "if" for now, but keep an eye on the Eagles. Title Chances: 25%
Washington Redskins (1-3): Our beloved Redskins earned a reprieve via a 24-14 road victory over the Raiders last Sunday. Washington now has a bye week to try to turn things around in much the same way it did last season. That begins with a Sunday night clash against arch-rival Dallas.
As I said before, that game, incredibly, could be for first place in the division. The problem is that the Redskins' schedule gets very tough thereafter.
The game at Dallas is followed by a home date with the Bears (3-1 at the moment), a road trip to Denver (4-0), a game against the same Chargers team (2-2) that just beat Dallas, back-to-back road games against the Vikings and Eagles, then a stretch run that includes games against the 49ers, Chiefs, and Falcons.
I want to say that the Redskins have the best shot to win the division if they beat Dallas. But the truth is that their schedule is not favorable. Washington probably needs to go no worse than 4-1 against the East the rest of the season, then find a way to win at least three more games against non-divisional opponents. 9-7 or 8-8 very well may win this division, and 10-6 surely would. The Redskins can get to eight or nine wins, but it won't be easy with that schedule. Here's hoping the 2013 bye week is as revelatory as last year's. Title Chances: 25%
Dallas Cowboys (2-2): Assuming the "one-eyed man in the land of the blind" role, the Cowboys' season performance is easily the best of a weak field. Not only is Dallas actually .500, but the Cowboys' two losses came by a total of ten points against teams that are a combined 6-2. Even if they were to lose to the Broncos at home by a couple of touchdowns, Dallas would still look like the class of this division.
But what if Washington does beat them? Suddenly, Dallas is 2-4, the media scrutiny begins to intensify further, Jason Garrett's seat gets molten hot, and the Cowboys go on the road three of the following four weeks.
What I keep coming back to is this: The Cowboys have the best roster in the division. Dez Bryant is unquestionably the best receiver. Jason Witten is likely still the best tight end. Romo may not be the "best" quarterback, but he is the highest-rated passer in the NFC East by a fair margin. DeMarco Murray is currently third in the entire NFC in rushing, and can at least hold his own against LeSean McCoy and Alfred Morris. The Cowboys' defense is tops in the division in total yardage and points allowed.
If the Redskins beat the Cowboys a week from Sunday night, we'll talk. But, until then, Dallas has to be considered the team to beat. Title Chances: 48%
The NFC East may not be the division it was when it routinely produced multiple playoff teams, but I can almost guarantee that the competitive, down-to-the-wire nature of the race will at least make up for what the division lacks in pure football excellence.