Let’s pretend that each team in the NFC East is equal in strength. That’s probably not true, of course, but I wan to stipulate that Eli Manning = Robert Griffin III = Tony Romo = Nick Foles, and that goes for the other 52 players on each of their teams, too. If that’s the case, the schedules will play a big role in determining the eventual champion.
The Cowboys and Eagles are tied atop the division at 5-5, with Dallas having the easiest remaining schedule (opponents have a 0.435 winning percentage) and Philadelphia having the second easiest (0.472). Washington (0.508) and New York (0.533) are both 3-6, with even more challenging schedules the rest of the way than the two division leaders. But I think it’s instructive to look at the schedules in a different way.
As you know, each team plays six games against the other three teams in the division. Of the remaining ten games, eight are the same — and this year, they come against the AFC West and NFC North. The final two games of the season are what I’ll call “Strength of Schedule” games, as they are determined by each team’s rank in the division in 2012. That means Washington, the #1 team in the division in 2012, is scheduled to play last year’s division winners from the NFC South and NFC West, the #2 team gets the runners up from those divisions, and so on. Let’s start there, because these “SOS” games already put one team behind the eight ball.
In the tables below, I’ll put a 1 in the cell if the team won the game, a 0 to represent a loss, and a 0.5 to indicate that the game has not yet been played.
The Giants drew the short straw, getting the Panthers and Seahawks. New York at least gets Seattle at home in week 15, but an 0-2 record in these SOS games seems likely. Philadelphia got the best draw: the Eagles have already Tampa Bay and play Arizona at home in week 13. The Cowboys went 1-1, while Washington still has both of these games to play. An optimist would view that as a chance to make up games, but a 1-1 split seems likely. If you want to rank these teams based on the SOS games and how that impacts their odds of winning the division, I’d say it’s PHI-1, DAL-2(t), WAS-2(t), NYG-4.
What about the NFC North?
We begin to see Washington losesground here by going 1-3, although much of these games remain to be played. In an odd twist, the Aaron Rodgers injury could end up deciding the division, as it helped give Philadelphia a win and may do the same for New York next week (he should be back for the Cowboys game and helped defeat Washington in week 2). Again, the Eagles come out looking strong: they beat the Packers in Lambeau, get a game left against Minnesota, and have not lost (yet) to Chicago (like the Giants) or the Lions (like the Cowboys). Dallas and New York each beat Minnesota, lost to one of Detroit/Chicago, and still has to play the other; the Giants still have the edge over the Cowboys, though, because of getting a game against a Rodgers-less Packers. If the NFC East came down to best record against the NFC North, you’d have to rank it PHI-1, NYG-2, DAL-3, WAS-4.
Sounds like the Eagles are in a great spot, but that’s because we haven’t gotten to the AFC West yet:
Washington is the big winner here. Everyone lost to Denver, but Washington at least has a chance to pick up a game on the entire division if they can beat Kansas City (on the other hand, the fact that they still have to play the Chiefs is not a good thing). The Cowboys still have Oakland on the schedule, so that will help, but the loss to San Diego will hurt. Washington will finish 3-1 or 2-2 against the AFC West, Dallas likely 1-3, and the Eagles did finish 1-3. The Giants play in San Diego in week 14, and that’s not an easy game. Still, if we assume that Washington is out of contention, that means the Giants can make up a game on both Dallas and Philadelphia by defeating the Chargers. I’d go WAS-1, NYG-2, DAL-3, and PHI-4.
So far, the Cowboys don’t look very good. But now we’re up to the division games: I’ll put a 0.6 in for the remaining home games, and 0.4 for the remaining road games:
Now we see why the Cowboys are on top of the division. Dallas is undefeated against the NFC East, and gets the Eagles at home in week 17. The last two seasons, the Cowboys lost in week 17 with the division on the line, but both times, America’s team was on the road. But let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
Washington is 0-2 against the NFC East, putting them in the worst shape. We have to assume that the NFC East champion will win 8 games, which means 3-6 Washington either needs to sweep the division or go 3-1 and beat both San Francisco and Kansas City (a win against Atlanta is required in either scenario). Granted, both of those games are at home, but you have to give Washington the longest odds to win the division. In the team’s 2013 season obituary, you will see the NFC North listed as the cause of death. Losing to Minnesota was brutal, and facing the Packers with Rodgers also put them behind at least the Eagles and maybe the Giants. To avenge those, Washington needed to dominate the division, which is hard to accomplish when you start off 0-2. A 2-2 split with the rest of the division is the most likely outcome, and that will shut the door on the team’s division hopes.
The Giants split with the Eagles, have not yet played Washington, and lost in Dallas. In some ways, that’s just holding serve, but the issue for New York is that a 3-3 division record won’t be enough. The Giants still face three tough non-division opponents — @ San Diego, Seattle, @ Detroit — and that assumes a win over the Scott Tolzien Packers on Sunday. New York is 1-2 in the division, but even a sweep of Washington and a win at home against Dallas may not be enough. The Giants would still need to win two of those three tough non-NFC games, or else they’ll finish 8-8 and be praying for Eagles losses. Assuming a loss to Seattle, the Giants 2013 obituary might cite the “SOS” games as the cause of death: facing Tampa Bay and Arizona might have given the Giants two wins, but the Panthers and Seahawks likely means two losses.
To put it another way, let’s examine New York’s 0-6 start. The losses to KC and Denver don’t matter, since the Cowboys and Eagles lost to those teams, too. Losses to Dallas and Philadelphia don’t (have to) matter, since New York won the rematch against the Eagles and can win the rematch at home against Dallas. Losing in Chicago isn’t bad — at least compared to Dallas, who gets a similar knock for losing in Detroit. The one bad loss was to Carolina, because that’s matched on the ledger by the Cowboys beating the Rams and the Eagles beating Tampa Bay. New York needs to upset Seattle to even things up with Dallas — a very tall task — but they would still be one back of Philadelphia (assuming the Eagles beat the Cardinals), and two games back if you match up the Chicago loss with the Eagles win in Lambeau. For the Giants, one thing is clear: the Eagles are the bigger hurdle to the division than the Cowboys, as making up those two games will be very tough since Philadelphia has an easier remaining schedule.
The Eagles also caught a break with respect to the scheduling of the AFC West games: the home/road designation matters most against San Diego (since everyone is losing to Denver/KC and beating Oakland), but the Giants have to travel to San Diego while the Eagles hosted (but lost) the Chargers. New York could pick up a win on Philadelphia in San Diego, but that won’t be an easy task and would still leave the Giants needing to make up two more games (again, assuming the Seahawks beat the Giants and the Eagles beat the Cardinals).
That brings us to Dallas and Philadelphia, the two favorites to win the division. Both are 5-5. Let’s look at their schedules:
Let’s assume Dallas beats Oakland at home. That puts both teams at 1-3 against the AFC West.
The Lions loss looms large. Philadelphia should be able to beat Minnesota, and if we give them a split against the Bears and Lions, that puts the Eagles at 3-1 against the black and blue division (perhaps with an Aaron Rodgers-sized asterisk). Dallas beat Minnesota, but it’s unrealistic to expect anything better than 1-1 against the Bears (in Chicago) and Packers, and 0-2 is certainly on the table. In any event, the Eagles should be projected to pick up at least a game on the Cowboys in the NFC North slate, thanks to some Matthew Stafford heroics and the timing of the Packers games.
The SOS games could give Philadelphia another extra win. I don’t think it’s unfair to say the Eagles would have lost had they played in New Orleans on Sunday night, too; instead, they got to play the Bucs. The Eagles should beat Arizona at home (although that game won’t be easy, as the Cardinals are better than some think), but the Cowboys are already done at 1-1. Philadelphia is now two games up on Dallas (6-4 vs. 4-6), and a cynic would say that’s because they will have faced Mike Glennon and Seneca Wallace instead of Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
The good news for Cowboys fans is that there’s one easy way to make up two games on a division opponent: sweep them. In week 17, Dallas will get that chance, at home. Do that, and both teams are 6-6, and Dallas has the tiebreaker. That means the division would come down to the performance against the other two NFC East teams. The Eagles split with the Giants, and are 1-0 against Washington with the rematch at home. The Cowboys beat both teams at home, but still has to go to New York and Washington. A 3-1 record for both teams seems pretty reasonable, which would give Dallas the division at 9-7.
Which brings us full circle. There might be some optimism going on here (the assumptions are: Dallas beats Oakland, splits the remaining NFC North games, and splits the two road games against Washington/New York), but I’ll put Dallas at 8-7 entering the season finale. For the Eagles, we assume they “take care of business” against Minnesota and Arizona, win at home against Washington, split with the Lions/Bears: that gets Philadelphia to 9-6. It’s certainly possible — and maybe even just as likely — that the Cowboys are 7-8 and the Eagles 8-7 after sixteen weeks.
In any event, that puts week 17 as a win or go home game. Washington and New York fans need to focus their collective energies on rooting for Philadelphia losses, and in fact, an Eagles win against Dallas in week 17 almost guarantees them the title. On the other hand, while the Eagles may have been lucky with the schedule, the early home loss to Dallas gives back that entire advantage vis-a-vis the Cowboys. It’s possible that either New York or Washington can force a three- or (gasp, close your eyes, kids) four-way tie at 8-8, but my best guess says the division is decided on the final Sunday in Dallas.
I would say that we could just skip ahead to that game, but if we’ve got a fast forward button, let’s be honest: we might as well just hold down that button for a little longer, until there’s two minutes left, and Tony Romo has the ball, trailing by four points.