Mediocrity looks to be enough to win the National Football Conference East, where the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins have a combined 4-12 record this season.
Since the National Football League split into eight four-team divisions in 2002, only three division champions have failed to produce a winning record, most recently in 2011 when the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos captured the American Football Conference West at 8-8.
The NFC East could make it four, as the division that has produced 12 Super Bowl championship teams has two fewer wins than any other this year. As the 0-4 Giants prepare to host the 1-3 Eagles in two days at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, both teams remain in contention for a playoff spot in a division led by the 2-2 Cowboys, who face the undefeated Denver Broncos this weekend.
“It’s more likely than not that 8-8 actually wins the division,” said ESPN analyst Tim Hasselbeck, who was in the NFL from 2002 to 2007 and played quarterback for the Giants, Redskins and Eagles. “Maybe there’s a tiebreaker decision with another 8-8 team, but I think 8-8 gets it done.”
NFC East teams are 2-10 against non-division opponents, one reason oddsmakers made the Cowboys 8 1/2-point underdogs at home against the Peyton Manning-led Broncos, who have won their first four games by an average of 22 points.
The Giants, one of the NFL’s four winless teams, are favored by 2 1/2 points over the Eagles. The game is a matchup of the two defenses that have allowed the most points in the league -- the Giants surrendering 146, the Eagles 138.
“We’re realists in our division,” Victor Cruz, who leads the Giants with 425 receiving yards, told reporters this week. “We understand what’s in front of us and we understand that there’s still a shot. We’re not completely out of this thing.”
The 2010 Seattle Seahawks were the only team since the NFL’s 2002 realignment to make the playoffs with a losing record, grabbing the NFC West title at 7-9. The 2008 San Diego Chargers captured the AFC West crown with an 8-8 mark.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin said this week his sole focus is on getting the team’s first victory of the season. Quarterback Eli Manning described it differently, saying the coaching staff has made sure the players realize the division title remains within their reach.
“Coach brought that up the other day, so we understand,” said Manning, who has thrown an NFL-high nine interceptions while being sacked 14 times. “There’s a lot of football left. We’re a better team than what we’ve been playing like, but we’ve got to go out there and prove it.”
Only one other division is led by a team without a 3-1 or 4-0 record. In the AFC North, the Cleveland Browns are 3-2 after a 37-24 win over the Buffalo Bills last night.
Even at 1-4, the Giants would be only one game out of the division lead if they win and the Cowboys lose to the Broncos, who have 15 consecutive regular-season victories.
While the 1992 Chargers are the only team to reach the playoffs following an 0-4 start, the Giants’ postseason odds would markedly improve with a win.
Since the NFL went to its current 12-team playoff format in 1990, six teams have recovered to make the postseason after starting 1-4, most recently the 2011 Broncos. The 1992 Chargers, 1993 Houston Oilers, 2002 Tennessee Titans, 2002 New York Jets and 2004 Green Bay Packers also advanced after opening 1-4.
“Once we get that first one under our belt, I think it will start going in the right direction,” Cruz said. “The key is getting that first one.”
While the Giants and Eagles have one win between them, three Week 5 games feature opponents that have combined for one loss. The 4-0 New Orleans Saints visit the 3-1 Chicago Bears, the 4-0 Kansas City Chiefs are at the 3-1 Titans, and the 3-1 Indianapolis Colts host the 4-0 Seahawks.
“It’s an exciting matchup,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said at a news conference this week. “It’s a cool team to go against and a difficult game. We’ll get it all cranked up, take it on the road and see if we can’t get a good win.”
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