If this feels like an outlier?
Well, it should. It is. It generally takes a great deal of work and a great many victories to win the NFC East. New York, Philadelphia, Dallas and Washington have been grouped together in the NFC East for as long as there has been an NFC East.
That was 1970. From the start, it was clear that the NFC East was going to be something special. In that first year of the merger, the first year of the six-division makeup of the unified NFL, only one division boasted three teams with winning records: the Cowboys (10-4), the Giants (9-5, one of only two winning seasons they had between 1964 and 1980) and the St. Louis Cardinals, a temporary resident as it turned out, who went 8-6.
The NFC East had been cobbled together out of the odd pairings from the final years of the old NFL. Dallas, Washington and Philly had played in the Capital Division in 1969, while the Giants and Cardinals had played in the Century Division; the previous year it had been Washington, the Giants, the Cowboys and the Eagles in the Capital.
That was the lineup the NFL craved as it rejiggered its standings: the natural I-95 corridor rivals in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, plus the fact that by 1970 everybody wanted to play the Cowboys twice. The Cardinals? They had to play somewhere, and even stuck around for a few years once they moved to Phoenix.
But in truth, the NFC East has always belonged to the four original members of the Capital Division, to New York, Philly, D.C. and Dallas. You can mix and match those teams and come up with rivalries that have drawn blood on the field, in the stands and inside saloons for the better part of 50 years. And there was almost always one rule:
If you wanted to win the East, you had to earn it.
In the 50 seasons encompassing 1970 through 2019, a team has won the division with single-digit wins only four times — and one of those was the 1982 strike season that lasted only nine games (and, as if to prove a point, the eventual-champion Redskins went 8-1, the best record in the league alongside the Raiders).
The Cowboys have never done it.; the Giants and Washington have done it once each.
The Giants, of course, were the ones who made the most of what seemed to be an impossibly mediocre division in 2011. Both the Cowboys and Eagles finished a game back, at 8-8. But as much as the Giants’ Christmas Eve win over the Jets is eternally remembered (thanks in large part to Victor Cruz’s 99-yard TD catch-and-run), it was a resounding 31-14 win at home over the Cowboys the next week that clinched first place — and set them up for the title run to follow.
In 2015, Washington squeaked by for the division title behind Kirk Cousins and was promptly blistered by the Packers in the playoffs.
And last year — which, for a time, felt eerily similar to this one — the Eagles won the division at 9-7, aided by the fact that both the Giants (4-12) and Washington (3-13) were cataclysmic and the fact that the Cowboys were nice enough to lose four out of five in November and December, including a 17-9 setback in Philly during the penultimate week of the season.
The Eagles, you may recall, were left for dead at 5-7 after losing to the Dolphins in Week 13, and that was the first time, ever really, when people started whispering about the “NFC Least.” The standings on the morning of Monday, Dec. 1, looked this way:
Looking back, given the hardships of the East this year, that almost reads like a glory year. The Eagles ran the table to reach nine wins — luckily they had five division games stored up — and lost a tough home playoff game to the Seahawks.
Now? Now eight wins will certainly win the division, seven might, six could and the folks who calculate such things figured out a way the Eagles, at 4-11-1, might actually figure out a way.
And it raises the question: Where have you gone, Doomsday and the Hogs?