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NFC East Notebook: A look back at a cursed division that has been defined by inconsistent winning

Let’s check out the headlines around the division this week

NFL: Washington Football Team at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone watching the New York Giants, Washington Football Team, Philadelphia Eagles or Dallas Cowboys in 2020 knows that the only guarantee with the NFC East is inconsistency.

The longest winning streak of the season for any team is the one that the Giants are currently on: three straight victories. What’s more, the signal-callers for each team keep changing. The Cowboys have started four quarterbacks this season. Washington has fielded three different QB’s under center. The Giants, faced with a hamstring injury to Daniel Jones, will likely start their second quarterback of the season in Colt McCoy in Week 13. Carson Wentz, the league leader in sacks and interceptions, is the only starter still standing.

Inconsistency is not new to the NFC East though. In fact, change has been embedded into the division’s history. There have been no repeat division winners in the past 15 years, the longest such streak of any division in the NFL. This begs the question: Is the NFC East cursed?

Below are the NFC East winner of the past decade:

NFC East Winners

Season Team Record Playoff Results
Season Team Record Playoff Results
2000 New York Giants 12-4 Lost Super Bowl XXXV to Ravens (34-7)
2001 Philadelphia Eagles 11-5 Lost NFC Championship to Rams (29-24)
2002 Philadelphia Eagles 12-4 Lost NFC Championship to Buccaneers (27-10)
2003 Philadelphia Eagles 12-4 Lost NFC Championship to Panthers (14-3)
2004 Philadelphia Eagles 13-3 Lost Super Bowl XXXIX to Patriots (24-21)
2005 New York Giants 11-5 Lost Wild Card playoffs to Panthers (23-0)
2006 Philadelphia Eagles 10-6 Lost Divisional playoffs to Saints (27-24)
2007 Dallas Cowboys 13-3 Lost Divisional playoffs to Giants (21-17)
2008 New York Giants 12-4 Lost Divisional playoffs to Eagles (23-11)
2009 Dallas Cowboys 11-5 Lost Divisional playoffs to Vikings (34-3)
2010 Philadelphia Eagles 10-6 Lost Wild Card playoffs to Packers (21-16)
2011 New York Giants 9-7 Won Super Bowl XLVI vs. Patriots (21-17)
2012 Washington Football Team 10-6 Lost Wild Card playoffs to Seahawks (24-14)
2013 Philadelphia Eagles 10-6 Lost Wild Card playoffs to Saints (26-24)
2014 Dallas Cowboys 12-4 Lost Divisional playoffs to Packers (35-18)
2015 Washington Football Team 9-7 Lost Wild Card playoffs (35-18)
2016 Dallas Cowboys 13-3 Lost Divisional playoffs to Packers (35-31)
2017 Philadelphia Eagles 13-3 Won Super Bowl LII vs. Patriots (41-33)
2018 Dallas Cowboys 10-6 Lost Divisional playoffs to Rams (30-22)
2019 Philadelphia Eagles 9-7 Lost Wild Card playoffs to Seahawks (17-9)

This constant changing of division winners over the years certainly keeps things interesting. Rarely is there one team that dominates above all of the rest. But this trend also reveals to what extent winning has eluded the teams of the NFC East. Success is never guaranteed in the NFL, but in the NFC East, it has become statistically improbable to do so consistently.

The longest winning streak of division titles came from the Eagles at the start of the century when Philly advanced to the playoffs for four straight years from 2001-04. That is the last time any team has repeated as a division winner for consecutive seasons, much less four in a row.

The past therefore also suggests that the Eagles, who clinched the division last season with a strong finish down the stretch, are unlikely to repeat this season. Wentz’s dismal performance has confirmed that, but Philly had history against it from the beginning.

So, the NFC East might be cursed. Or, it might just be bad.

Now, let’s dive into headlines from around the division from this past week:

Philadelphia Eagles

Though Philly has history and a struggling quarterback working against it, the Eagles received some positive news this week.

The Eagles activated star tight end Zach Ertz off Injured Reserve Wednesday. Ertz has been sidelined since suffering a high ankle sprain against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 6. Ertz entered the season with more catches through the first seven seasons of his career (525) than any other tight end in NFL history. He got off to a slow start this season, catching just 24 balls of 178 yards and one touchdown through six games. It is difficult to imagine Ertz being able to find his stride after missing the past seven weeks and because Wentz himself has not exactly been in a groove.

Ertz’s return is significant because the next fives games could possibly be his last with the Eagles. Ertz’s five-year contract with the Eagles expires at the end of this season and Philly has yet to make him a better offer.

Ertz’s performance at the start of the 2020 season was not exactly worthy of a new contract. But at this point, are the Eagles worthy of Ertz? The three-time Pro Bowler is the only tight end in the league who has led his team in both catches and receiving yards in each of the past four seasons. His performance through the first six weeks hardly captures the entire picture.

Dallas Cowboys

Meanwhile in Dallas, Dak Prescott made his first return to practice this past week since suffering from an ankle dislocation and compound fracture in Week 5 against the Giants.

Prescott joined a videoconference recently to share the experience of his season-ending injury with a small group of rookies in an roundtable discussion. He talked about the high’s and low’s of the injury process and the importance of maintaining a positive outlook.

Then, on Friday, Prescott showed up at the Cowboys practice, providing a much-needed lift to the team the day after the funereal for Cowboys strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul.

Since Prescott went down in Week 5, the Cowboys have struggled at the quarterback position. They have started three different signal callers and have yet to find any lasting success.

As the season reaches its final stretch of games, the Cowboys’ standing in the 2021 NFL Draft becomes more relevant - and who they would target with a high pick becomes more debated.

Drafting a top-tier quarterback is tempting for any team that has a top-five pick. For teams in need of a new QB under center, there is no better time to get one than with a high draft pick. But the Cowboys are in a strange spot because Prescott, who played on the franchise tag this season, will be a free agent at the end of the 2020 season. Dallas can use the franchise tag on Prescott again (for a very high price) as both parties look to make a long-term deal. But regardless, the quarterback situation remains uncertain in Dallas.

Washington Football Team

Buoyed by strong performances from its young players like wide receiver Terry McLaurin and running back Antonio Gibson, the Washington Football Team arguably has the most momentum in the division after its convincing win over the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day.

Week after week, the Washington Football Team’s third-round draft selections make a difference on the field. Gibson was selected No. 66 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft and McLaurin was drafted No. 76 in the 2019 NFL Draft. In Washington’s victory over the Cowboys, McLaurin and Gibson set the tone.

McLaurin recorded a team-leading seven receptions for 92 yards. But his most memorable play was not on the offensive side of the ball. When Jaylon Smith intercepted Alex Smith’s pass intended for McLaurin at 4:21 in the third quarter, McLaurin chased Jaylon Smith down. Refusing to give up on the play, McLaurin hustled and managed to tackle Jaylon Smith at the Washington 4-yard line - a play that saved Washington four points and has been compared to DK Metcalf’s chase-down of Budda Baker in Week 7.

Meanwhile, Gibson rushed for 115 yards and three touchdowns in the game. He became the first rookie to score three touchdowns in a matchup on Thanksgiving since Randy Moss in 1998. In addition to his strong performance, the Memphis product demonstrated his swagger. After out-running Donovan Wilson for his second touchdown of the game, Gibson looked back and waved.

In the final stretch of the season, the Football Team will turn to its third-round draft picks as it competes for a first-place finish.