The NFC East is no longer the dominant division it was when its teams triumphed in seven of the 10 Super Bowls from 1986-95, with New York and Washington capturing two each and Dallas winning three.
But in the 16 full seasons since, only the Giants have won another title, two actually. Philadelphia got to the Super Bowl but lost in its first appearance since 1980. Meanwhile, Washington (two) and Dallas (one) have combined to win just three playoff games during a span that’s lasted longer than London Fletcher.
Winning the division is a different matter. New York won the NFC East in 2011. Philadelphia reigned in 2010 and Dallas finished first in 2009. New York won in 2008, Dallas in 2007 and Philadelphia in 2006. That’s six seasons with the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys splitting the six titles.
Notice who’s missing? Washington hasn’t come out on top since 1999, which was its first championship season in eight years. So that makes one NFC East crown for the Redskins in 20 years compared to eight for the Cowboys, six for the Eagles and five for the Giants.
If that’s not bad enough, the only NFL city that hasn’t won a division championship during those two decades is Cleveland, which didn’t have a team from 1996-98. Detroit’s the only other market besides Washington which has won just one since the Oilers (1993) and Texans (2011) each captured titles for Houston – which didn’t have a franchise from 1997-2001 — and the Jets (1998) added to the Giants’ haul for New York. Even Carolina and Jacksonville, which didn’t even exist until 1995, have ruled their divisions twice.
All of this history leads us to tonight’s Redskins-Giants rematch in which Washington will be seeking revenge for its 27-23 loss at New York in Week 7 which came on a 77-yard bomb from Eli Manning to Victor Cruz with 73 seconds left, just 19 seconds after Robert Griffin III had seemingly won the game for the visitors with a pretty 30-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss.
If not for that play, the Redskins would be 6-5 as would the Giants. In fact, Washington would actually be leading the NFC East thanks to a 3-0 division record compared to New York’s 1-2 mark. Instead, the Giants are two games in front of the Redskins, who fell a half game behind the Cowboys after Dallas beat visiting Philadelphia last night (I know the networks love the Cowboys, who sell so much merchandise for the league, but how does Dallas not play a road game from Nov. 12 through December 8?)
Even though tonight’s game won’t be for first place, the Redskins still have to be flying high after beating the Eagles and Cowboys in the space of a five-day stretch that ended on Thanksgiving.
Pierre Garcon looked like a No. 1 receiver at Dallas for the first time since he hurt his right foot in the first quarter of the opening upset at New Orleans. Warrior/inside linebacker Fletcher tossed aside the walking boot protecting the left ankle he sprained against Philadelphia to pick off Tony Romo and join Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher as the only active players with 20 interceptions and 30 sacks during their careers. And Robert Griffin III threw four touchdown passes in each game, accomplishing something in just those five days that no rookie since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger had done twice in an entire season.
The rapid-fire victories over the Eagles and Cowboys matched Washington’s total in NFC East competition in each of coach Mike Shanahan’s first two seasons which were upgrades from predecessor Jim Zorn’s 0-6 division mark in 2009. So the Redskins haven’t finished at .500 in the division (or overall) since 2008. They also haven’t had a winning record in the round-robin with the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants since 2005, which, not coincidentally, is their only season since the 1999 NFC East title-winning campaign in which they won at least 10 games as well as a playoff contest.
However, if Washington – which outscored New York, Philadelphia and Dallas 92-64 during the first half of its division schedule – can sweep the games with the Giants, Eagles (on the road on Dec. 23) and Cowboys (in the Dec. 30 finale at home), it would finish no worse than 8-8. Add a victory at struggling Cleveland on Dec. 16 and the Redskins would be 9-7 (even with a loss to Baltimore on Dec. 9) and a serious playoff contender in the NFC in which they’re currently just a game behind Tampa Bay, Minnesota and Seattle for the final wild card spot.
The bottom line: do well in your division and you can expect to play in January. Falter against your archrivals as the Redskins have done for two decades and the playoffs remain just a dream.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin