Who's going to win NFC East? Washington the favorite, but Giants and Cowboys aren't far behind

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

If the Kansas City Chiefs were in the NFC East, they would have an eight-game lead over the Washington Football Team and Dallas Cowboys--nine over the New York Giants. The division race would have been over before Thanksgiving.

But the Chiefs aren't even in the same conference, and the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and every other NFC team with a winning record is in a different division. Like it or not, the Cowboys, Giants or Washington will be in the 2020 NFL playoffs.

Remember the days when it was the Cowboys or Philadelphia Eagles who were favored to take this division with ease? That was the preseason narrative.

Washington or New York seem most likely to emerge with this honor -- either at 7-9 or, welp, 6-10. And they started the season by winning a combined one of their first 10 games.

ESPN's Football Power Index gives Washington a 58% chance to win the NFC East, with the Giants (24%) and Cowboys (17%) falling in line. If Washington (6-9) wins its season finale against the Eagles, it clinches the division. But if Washington loses, the winner of Sunday's matchup between the Cowboys (6-9) and Giants (5-10) takes the crown.

ESPN reporters Todd Archer (Cowboys), Jordan Raanan (Giants) and John Keim (Washington) examine how these teams fared against each other and what each must do to win on Sunday.

Hey, some team has to win the NFC East, deserving or not.

Dallas Cowboys (6-9)

Week 17: Cowboys at Giants (5-10), 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

What the Cowboys need to do in Week 17 to win: Follow the same formula they've used the past three weeks: protect the ball and get takeaways. The Giants' offense is scuffling but did score 27 of New York's 34 points when these teams met in October -- a 37-34 Dallas win. The Cowboys' defense needs to avoid giving up big plays. On offense, Dallas must continue to make big plays.

What went right in Week 5 when the Cowboys beat the Giants? You mean after losing quarterback Dak Prescott to a right ankle injury in the third quarter? Andy Dalton was able to make plays down the field to wide receiver Michael Gallup, who essentially won the game late with two sideline catches to set up Greg Zuerlein's winning field goal. Prescott connected with CeeDee Lamb on three passes of more than 20 yards before he got hurt. Also, running back Ezekiel Elliott managed 91 yards on 19 carries. Elliott is coming off one of his best games against Philadelphia in Week 16 and has pronounced himself healthy despite a calf injury.

Lowest moment of the 2020 season: The 41-16 loss to Washington on Thanksgiving Day. Losing Prescott was pretty bad, too, but the Cowboys suffered a tragic loss the day before playing Washington when strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul died. The Cowboys were emotionally and physically drained after that loss, which dropped them to 3-8. Things looked bleak with five losses in a six-game stretch that would become a six-loss-in-seven-game stretch come Dec. 8, but the loss of Paul, who had a medical emergency at The Star, was different than anything this team has gone through in 2020.

The turning point in the Cowboys' 2020 season: We've heard of location, location, location. For the Cowboys, it was schedule, schedule, schedule. The Cowboys' three-game winning streak has come against teams with a combined 14-29-2 record: Cincinnati, San Francisco and Philadelphia. The Cowboys have played better, but more importantly, they have done a better job of not giving games away.

On the Cowboys' chances to make the playoffs: "I mean, until I read that message board saying, 'eliminated,' we don't ever stop. That's been a message outside of the talking heads, outside of our locker room. So we're never out of it. Obviously it's hard for a team to adapt to new defenses and all the different personnel around the building, but we're doing it. I feel like it's really coming together at the end of the year. This team's got something great to look forward to going forward." -- Cowboys defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford

New York Giants (5-10)

Week 17: Cowboys (6-9) at Giants, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

What the Giants need to do in Week 17 to win: Score points. It's pretty simple. The Giants have scored 26 points in their past three games combined. They haven't reached 20 points in a contest in any of their past five games. Their offense is going to have to wake up and produce some explosive plays, especially against a Dallas team that can put points on the board. The good news is the Cowboys' defense is ranked 26th in the NFL, and the Giants scored a season-high 34 points on them in the first meeting.

What went wrong in Week 5 when the Giants lost to the Cowboys?The Giants' defense in Week 5 was still in its infancy. The unit allowed Dalton to drive 72 yards in four plays to set up the winning field goal. So easy. Dallas finished with more than 400 yards in that game. It's hard to imagine the Giants' defense in its current form getting shredded like that again; Dallas put up 37 points, after all. The Giants haven't allowed 30 points in a game since.

Lowest moment of the 2020 season: Pick your loss. Dallas in Week 5? The Eagles in Week 7? The Bucs in Week 8? That was a tough stretch. Three blown wins. None were worse than the Thursday night loss in Philadelphia when Evan Engram's dropped pass allowed Eagles QB Carson Wentz (yes, the benched one) to finish off an improbable comeback down 11 points in the final five minutes.

The turning point in the Giants' 2020 season: When quarterbackDaniel Jones stopped turning the ball over in a Week 9 win against Washington. It sparked a four-game winning streak during which the Giants quarterback didn't commit a turnover in any of the first three wins. BackupColt McCoy played in the fourth. Up until that Washington game, Jones had thrown nine interceptions and lost four fumbles. He hasn't had an interception since.

On the Giants' chances to make the playoffs: "It's good [going from] thinking you're going to get eliminated to having the opportunity. So it was a good feeling even though we would've rather won the game [in Week 16] to give ourselves a better opportunity." -- Giants center Nick Gates

Washington Football Team (6-9)

Week 17: Washington at Eagles (4-10-1), 8:20 p.m. ET (NBC)

What Washington needs to do in Week 17 to win: Start better. Washington has fallen behind by double digits in 11 of its 15 games; it has rallied to win twice. The defense has been terrific but has also struggled early. Washington can't afford that Sunday. Quarterback Alex Smith's return would help, but he's not good enough to win by himself. Washington needs running backs Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic to have big days, and for wide receiver Terry McLaurin to return from a high ankle sprain.

What went right in Week 1 when Washington beat the Eagles? The pass rush in the 27-17 win. Washington sacked Wentz eight times, led by rookie Chase Young's 1.5 sacks in his NFL debut. The Eagles' line already was banged up at the time and Washington capitalized as all five of its first-round picks along the defensive front recorded a sack. Washington needed to rally from a 17-0 deficit; afterward, coach Ron Rivera said it let him know how good they could be as a team.

Lowest moment of the 2020 season: The 20-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 16, because of all it entailed. It was a game Rivera -- who coached the Panthers for nine years before being fired last season -- badly wanted to win, but controversy surrounding quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. all week took away from the attention on the game. Then Haskins played poorly, was benched and outplayed by replacement Taylor Heinicke, who was signed to the practice squad a month earlier. It also robbed Washington of the chance to clinch the NFC East.

The turning point in Washington's 2020 season: Smith starting. His veteran presence helped settle the young players on offense. It reached its peak in the 41-16 win against Dallas on Thanksgiving Day. It was the most energy Washington had played with in some time, and the team's confidence soared after that win, leading to victories against Pittsburgh and San Francisco in the next two games. Smith is 4-1 as Washington's starter.

On Washington's chances to make the playoffs: "Nobody expected us to be in this position. You guys didn't expect us to be in this position. Really the only guy that did was me. That's the truth. It might be from my version, but that's what I'm going to get the players to believe. We control our own destiny. It's in our hands. All the clichés. We're going to have fun with it and go with it." -- Rivera

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