Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 3, 2015

From East To Least In The New NFL

Oh how the mighty have fallen. Since the Super Bowl became the final game of every NFL season in 1967, two years before it was actually called the Super Bowl, there have been long stretches when one of the safer bets one could make on football was that the NFC representative to the big game would be a team from the conference’s East Division. From 1971 to 1984, NFC East teams went to the Super Bowl nine times in fourteen years. The Dallas Cowboys led the way with five appearances, followed closely by Washington with three, while the Philadelphia Eagles played in Super Bowl XV. Then after a brief hiatus the division entered a period of even greater dominance, as a team from the East was crowned the conference champion seven times in ten years between 1987 and 1996. The Cowboys, Giants and Washington shared the wealth during this period, with Dallas playing in three Super Bowls while the other two franchises both appeared twice.

Those halcyon days are but misty memories now for football fans in New York, Philadelphia, Dallas and our nation’s capital. In the nineteen years since the Cowboys beat the Steelers 27-17 in Super Bowl XXX, the last NFC team standing has been from the East Division just four times. The Eagles made their second trip in 2005, and the Giants have advanced to the NFL’s final Sunday three times, losing in 2001 and stunning the heavily favored New England Patriots in both 2008 and 2012. For the diminished NFC East, four Super Bowl appearances in the last nineteen years is highly likely to become four in twenty by the time the non-roman numeral named Super Bowl 50 rolls around on the first Sunday in February.

For while the good news for fans of these teams is that they all remain alive for the playoffs, the reality is that is true only because the NFL awards a playoff spot to every division winner, irrespective of their record. So even though all four NFC East teams currently sport losing records and despite the possibility that could still be true after the final regular season game has been played, one of them will play at least one playoff game, hosting a contest on Wild Card weekend, very possibly against an opponent with a better record.

At the moment Washington is the team leading the way, though the expression hardly seems appropriate. Dan Snyder’s team is at 5-6, a record matched by the Giants. However Washington holds the tiebreaker on the strength of a better division record, made possible by a 20-14 win over New York just last Sunday.

That was a game that symbolized the mediocrity of the NFC East. One week earlier Washington had been soundly thrashed by the Carolina Panthers, 44-16. The Giants were the lone team in the division at least at .500, and had watched the other two squads go down in flames on Thanksgiving Day. There was plenty of heartburn and not just from overeating in Philadelphia and Dallas; as the Lions crushed the Eagles 45-14 while the turkey was in the oven and the Panthers ran away from the Cowboys 33-14 over second helpings of pumpkin pie.

All that meant New York had a prime opportunity to seize control of the division, and climb above .500 while doing so. Instead the Giants, whose fans have grown used to maddening inconsistency this year, played perhaps their worst thirty minutes of the season to fall behind 17-0 at the half. New York suddenly awoke with just over ten minutes remaining in the game, but in the end two late touchdown passes by Eli Manning only made the final score look more respectable.

Behind the two atop the division with their mighty sub-.500 records sit the Eagles at 4-7 and the Cowboys at 3-8. Philadelphia has surrendered 45 points two weeks in a row, against a pair of teams with losing records. While Eagles fans can point to the likely return of Sam Bradford from injury, he ranks 35th in quarterback rating this season, barely better than 37th ranked Mark Sanchez who has been filling in under center. Similarly Dallas fans have been pinning their slim hopes on the return of Tony Romo, a quarterback who never has quite lived up to his reputation. However fanciful those hopes may have been, they were dashed for good when in his first game back Romo suffered a season-ending collarbone injury against the Panthers.

Still the rules say one of these teams is headed for the postseason. One computer program that calculates all the possible outcomes of the remaining games in the NFL season gives the Giants the best chance at 43%, and New York’s Simple Ratings System (SRS) metric is the highest of the four. But Washington’s remaining opponents all have losing records, and with three remaining division games Washington also has the most chances to do double damage with a win.

The facts that the computer simulation gives all four teams a less than fifty percent chance of making the playoffs and that all four have SRS numbers placing them in the bottom half of the league show how weak the NFC East is this year. Yet if the eventual division winner claims the crown with a losing record, it won’t make history. Seattle won the NFC West in the 2009-10 season with a 7-9 mark, and last year 7-8-1 Carolina took the NFC South. That recent history and the sad state of the NFC East reflect the new reality of the NFL. As play begins this week only seven teams boast records that are two or more games above .500. That number includes five truly superior teams. Carolina remains perfect at 11-0. New England is 10-1 after falling to Denver last Sunday night. The Broncos, Cardinals and Bengals are all 9-2.

Meanwhile twenty-five franchises, more than three-quarters of the league, are at best one loss away from being at .500, the ultimate mark of mediocrity. Most of those teams can only look up at that number as something to shoot for. The NFL became the dominant American sports league on the premise of “any given Sunday,” the promise of parity that made every game worth seeing. The league’s marketing mavens would never admit it, but the records of thirty-two teams speak volumes.

The modern NFL, with its focus on offense and reliance on star quarterbacks, is a league of a few haves and many have-nots. It’s no surprise that the teams whose signal-callers have the top three quarterback ratings are among the five with the best records. But fans of other franchises can only wish that a Tom Brady or a Carson Palmer or an Andy Dalton was wearing their colors.

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