You hear it every weekend. Someone in the media says it or perhaps you say it or, late Monday night after a 38-10 thrashing from the Arizona Cardinals, even Zeke Elliott said it. "The beauty of the thing is that our division isn't doing that well this year, and we've still got a shot at it," he said.
The beauty of the bad division. Just how lousy is the NFC East — is it just a set of teams that has gone off the rails a bit or is it historically bad — and what does it mean for the Cowboys or anyone else?
Let's start with what I think and then get to the evidence. I think it's historically bad. I think records of the worst kind will be set by the NFC East in 2020. I feel like we have been saying the East is down for several years, but since the current format was created 18 years ago with the addition of the Houston Texans — eight divisions of four teams, each playing 64 games — the NFC East was NEVER EVER the worst until last season.
More often than not, the AFC West or the AFC South own the worst overall records. The NFC North — brawny land of Bears and Packers and Lions and Vikings — has never been the worst and the same was true of the East until last year when it fell apart with a 24-40 record. That's a 12-28 record outside the division. Jason Garrett's final club never would have reached the 8-8 mark without beating up on East foes. The Cowboys went 5-1 in the division and 3-7 outside of it. In fact, since the start of last season, Dallas is 4-11 in games played outside the division.
Overall the East has a 6-8-4 record through 18 seasons. It has been above .500 six times, below it eight times and a solid 32-32 four times. So never let a coach or player get away with that cliche about division games being the toughest. They're important, yes, but at the moment, they're the only easy rides the Cowboys, Eagles, Giants and Washington Football Team can find.
Last year's East came close to the worst mark of all time. They missed catching the 2008 NFC West, which produced a 22-42 record (a nice round 10-30 outside the division), by two games.
Are you ready for the good news? (I suppose if you're a Cowboys fan, you're ready for the good news). The Arizona Cardinals came within seconds of winning Super Bowl XLIII after going 9-7 to win the worst division of this era in 2008.
Now that doesn't mean the winner of the East is bound for Tampa in February. And, specifically in the Cowboys' case, Kurt Warner isn't walking through that door at the Star in the next two months. Still, the winner of every division gets a home game to start the playoffs and the same will be true this year no matter how bad the record. In 2010, the Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West at 7-9 and upset the Saints in the first round of the postseason.
ESPN's Power Index projects Philadelphia to win the division at 6-9-1 which, again, would make history. Who knows how it will shake out, but never let it be said that ties are useless. Doug Pederson's conservative approach at the end of the Cincinnati game got the Eagles a tie. When the East is 2-13-1 playing opponents outside the division, a tie doesn't look so bad.
For its part, Dallas is 1-4 outside the division. Yes, it took somewhat of a miracle onside kick and a characteristic Falcons collapse for the Cowboys to secure that win. Beyond that, the Eagles' strange win over a depleted San Francisco team represents the only victory that wasn't head-to-head in the East.
This weekend the division will add two wins to its total (barring ties) which makes really anything possible. If Dallas loses at Washington and the Giants trip up the Eagles, you could have a three-way tie for first with Philadelphia a half game back. But that's asking a lot of New York given that six weeks into the season, the Eagles are the only East team to win a road game.
In order to match the 2008 NFC West for the worst division record ever, the East will need to go 7-16-1 outside the division the rest of the way. Maybe that doesn't sound like much. But if you have seen the teams that Carson Wentz, Daniel Jones, Kyle Allen and Andy Dalton are running, then you recognize that it's a big jump up from 2-13-1 to 7-16-1 and that history is about to be written.
Gear up. The race to six wins is on.
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