By SCHUYLER DIXON
The NFC East suddenly doesn’t look so bad, with the New York Giants and Washington tied for the division lead coming off road victories against teams that qualify for the conversation about the Super Bowl.
The Giants, who beat Seattle on Sunday, control their fate because they swept Washington, and could become the first team to make the playoffs after starting 1-7. Washington is also 5-7 after handing Pittsburgh its first loss Monday night.
Those were the first two victories over opponents with winning records this season for the only division in the NFL without a winning team. But the NFC East winner will get a home game in the first round of the playoffs, expanded by one team in each conference because of the pandemic. The altered format also means just one first-round bye, currently held by New Orleans (10-2), the only NFC team to clinch a postseason berth so far.
“I had a lot of questions obviously early in the year about things like confidence on the team and where were we going, and really our mindset here is just go back to work every week, and that’s what we’re going to do this week as well,” first-year Giants coach Joe Judge said.
A division-by-division look at the NFC playoff race going into the final quarter of the season:
Hopes are fading for Dallas and Philadelphia after entering the season as the teams that figured to battle for the NFC East title. They have one win between them since the Eagles beat the Cowboys on Nov. 1.
Philadelphia (3-8-1) doesn’t have it easy trying to end a four-game losing streak and is making a bold move in that effort by benching quarterback Carson Wentz in favor of rookie Jalen Hurts.
The Eagles play the Saints at home Sunday, then visit Arizona to finish what could be a five-game stretch against teams with winning records if the Cardinals beat the Giants on Sunday.
New York’s four-game winning streak is its longest since 2016, the last time the Giants made the playoffs. With quarterback Daniel Jones expected to rest his injured hamstring another week, Colt McCoy should get the nod again after beating Seattle for just his second win in his eighth start since 2014.
Washington is on its third quarterback in former starter Alex Smith, playing for the first time in two years after a career-threatening leg injury. Smith has Washington on a three-game winning streak, capped by a drive to a tiebreaking field goal late against the Steelers.
Dallas (3-9) was all but removed from the conversation with its sixth loss in seven games, 34-17 at Baltimore on Tuesday night. The Cowboys have the worst record in the NFC, and the most realistic path to the playoffs would be tying the Giants at the top with a season sweep of New York, their opponent in the finale.
Green Bay (9-3) has a three-game lead over Minnesota with four to go and is currently the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Three of the Packers’ opponents currently have losing records.
The Vikings (6-6) hold the last of the seven playoff spots in the NFC right now with a big opportunity to put a tighter grip on that spot if they can beat Tom Brady at Tampa Bay on Sunday.
New Orleans is also on the schedule, so Minnesota could be looking at must wins against division rivals Chicago and Detroit, the two NFC North teams with losing records at the moment.
The Bears (5-7) have lost six in a row since a 5-1 start, putting Matt Nagy on the coaching hot seat after the Lions (5-7) already fired Matt Patricia.
What looked like a duel between the Brady-led Buccaneers and Drew Brees’ Saints for the division title — and possibly that lone first-round bye — has faded with three losses in four games by Tampa Bay (7-5).
Meanwhile, the division lead for the Saints (10-2) has grown to three games because they’re doing the same thing they did last year: win without Brees.
Teddy Bridgewater went 5-0 a year ago, and Taysom Hill has won his first three starts since Brees left a 27-13 win over San Francisco on Nov. 15 with broken ribs and a collapsed lung. New Orleans has won nine straight games since a 1-2 start.
Atlanta (4-8) has been better since getting buried by an 0-5 start that included the firing of coach Dan Quinn. Carolina (4-8) has been without star running back Christian McCaffrey for nine games because of ankle and shoulder injuries in coach Matt Rhule’s first season.
It’s still the NFC’s best division, but the struggles of the Seahawks and Cardinals have changed things some.
The Los Angeles Rams have won three out of four to get even atop the NFC West with Seattle, which is 3-4 since the first 5-0 start in franchise history.
The Rams have the tiebreaker at the moment by virtue of their 23-16 win over the Seahawks, so their rematch in the second-to-last week of the season looms large. If Seattle wins Dec. 27, the subsequent tiebreakers of division records and records with other common opponents are a tossup right now.
With three consecutive losses and four in the past five games, Kyler Murray and the Cardinals (6-6) suddenly find themselves as the first team out of the playoff picture, losing at the moment to the Vikings on the common opponent tiebreaker.
San Francisco, the defending NFC champion, hasn’t been able to dig out of last place in the difficult division the past two months. An uplifting win over the Rams two weeks ago was followed by a decisive loss to Buffalo on Monday night. The game was moved to Arizona because of coronavirus restrictions in the 49ers’ home county.
While the 49ers (5-7) aren’t completely out of the race, they’ll need help to avoid being the second straight NFC champ to miss the playoffs the next season. It happened to LA last year.