Giants revival the latest twist in the always unpredictable NFC East
I'm starting to think the New York Giants have the rest of the NFC East right where they want them. This is a division that has a rich recent history of being Curveball Central in the NFL, giving us a playoff team that we never saw coming, and you have to wonder if it's happening again. Are the once-left-for-dead Giants in the process of becoming the first team to ever start 0-6 and still make the playoffs? Did I really just write that sentence?
All I know is something weird and unexpected seems to happen in the NFC East playoff race on a regular basis, and the Giants, winners of four games in a row, suddenly own the division's longest winning streak of the season. If Tom Coughlin's resurgent team beats the faltering Cowboys (5-5) at home on Sunday, it will stand 5-6, just one game behind first-place Philadelphia (6-5, on a Week 12 bye) with five games remaining.
That's right. One game back with five to play, with the Giants' only remaining division games at that point being two meetings with last-place Washington (3-7), a team that looks ready to really unravel in the final six weeks. That we're even considering the playoff possibilities of a Giants team that has been outscored 256-192 this season, with 29 turnovers, is improbable enough. But that's the state of things in this year's NFC East, and really, late-season strange has been the division's default setting since roughly 2005.
A brief history lesson of the weirdness is in order:
• 2005 -- Washington starts the season 5-6 and is tied for last place with Philadelphia after Week 12. But Joe Gibbs' team catches fire down the stretch, winning five in a row -- including the final three against division rivals Dallas, the Giants and Philadelphia -- to finish 10-6 and claim the NFC's second wild-card berth.
• 2006 -- Philadelphia starts 5-6 that year, losing No. 1 quarterback Donovan McNabb to a season-ending knee injury in a Week 11 loss to Tennessee. But with Jeff Garcia taking over at quarterback, the Eagles go 5-0 in December, winning three consecutive division road games in Weeks 14-15-16. At 10-6, Philadelphia claims the NFC East title, beating out Dallas (9-7) after the Cowboys had started 8-4, and the Giants (8-8), who had once been 6-2.
• 2007 -- The Cowboys cruised to a 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed in the NFC that season, but of course it was the No. 5-seeded Giants (10-6) who got to celebrate, storming to an unlikely Super Bowl title on the strength of three consecutive road playoff wins and that memorable upset of the vaunted 18-0 Patriots in Arizona. The weirdness really began with New York's inspiring 38-35 Week 17 loss to visiting New England, a defeat that somehow set the Giants up for greater things in the weeks ahead.
• 2008 -- After 12 weeks of the regular season, the Eagles were 5-5-1 and in last place in the NFC East, 4½ games behind the first-place Giants (10-1). But the Eagles closed fast once again, winning four of their last five games, including a huge Week 14 upset of the Giants in the Meadowlands. Philadelphia (9-6-1) made the playoffs as the NFC's No. 6 seed, beat the top-seeded Giants and third-seeded Vikings on the road in the playoffs, and weren't stopped until a defeat by Arizona in the NFC Championship Game.
• 2010 -- The entire division race came down to one play that season: DeSean Jackson's game-winning 65-yard punt return as time expired in Philadelphia's ridiculous 38-31 comeback win at the Giants in Week 15. The Eagles trailed 31-10 with 8:17 left in regulation, but somehow beat New York for a sixth consecutive time. Philadelphia finished 10-6 and won the East. The Giants finished 10-6 and missed the playoffs despite starting 6-2, and later sitting 9-4.
• 2011 -- Much like the current season, the division was a bastion of mediocrity for most of 2011. The visiting Giants were humiliated by New Orleans in a 49-24 Week 12 loss on Monday Night Football, and then came home to drop a 38-35 showdown with the undefeated Packers. Again, the near-miss against a perfect team sparked something for the G-Men, because New York went 3-1 down the stretch and beat Dallas in Week 17 to claim an unlikely division title at 9-7, becoming the first NFC East champion with fewer than 10 victories. Another four wins in the playoffs, including at top-seeded Green Bay and No. 2-seeded San Francisco, and the Giants had another improbable Super Bowl trophy.
• 2012 -- Washington's seven-game season-ending winning streak was predicted by absolutely no one. Even Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan talked about starting to evaluate his players for 2013 when Washington lost at home to Carolina in Week 9, falling into sole possession of last place in the division at 3-6. But after a Week 10 bye, Washington was unbeatable, winning out to earn its first NFC East championship since 1999. The Redskins scored 27 points or more in six of their final seven games, going 5-0 against division rivals during that run.
It's quite a track record of the unforeseen, and there's no other division in the league that can match it. So who cares if this season's Giants rank 28th in the NFL in points with 192, and have a woeful minus-11 turnover ratio that's tied for second-worst in the league (29 giveaways, 18 takeaways)? This is the NFC East, where anything can happen, and usually does.
You can't overlook the rally the Eagles have mounted themselves, with a three-game winning streak that has vaulted them into first place at 6-5. But underestimating the Giants has proven to be a miscalculation when it comes to the NFC playoff picture, as history bears out.
New York hasn't lost since Oct. 10, and the Giants are getting their mojo back on defense and in the running game at the right time of the season. And let's face it, the breaks do seem to be lining up in their favor, with New York in its past four games drawing the likes of the Josh Freeman-led Vikings, an injured Michael Vick and ineffective Matt Barkley in Philadelphia, a gimpy Terrelle Pryor for Oakland, and an Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay squad. And now here comes a visit from the so-so Cowboys, in their first game since being destroyed 49-17 by New Orleans in that Week 10 Sunday Night Football massacre in the Superdome. The Cowboys beat New York 36-31 in Week 1, but that was eons ago. Dallas swooning in November and December is another staple of life in the NFC East.
The Giants' six remaining opponents have a .508 winning percentage, but that stat is largely pumped up by their Week 15 home game against Seattle (10-1), the likely top seed in the NFC. New York's other games after the Dallas matchup seem winnable if the Giants stay hot: at Washington in Week 13, at San Diego in Week 14, at Detroit in Week 16 and home against Washington in Week 17.
Maybe there's no explaining how New York is still alive in the playoff race. Maybe it's just an occurrence to be gawked at, like a freak show at the fair, or a 10-car pile-up on the highway. The Giants are 4-6, have legitimate playoff hopes, and might just have the division within their grasp after the franchise's worst start since 1976. The only thing we know for sure is it's mid-November, and the NFC East is getting weird again.