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AT THE Huntersville, N.C., headquarters of Joe Gibbs Racing, where Tony Stewart onesies sell alongside Kyle Busch temporary tattoos, the company's namesake still marvels at the mayhem of the NFC East. Two days before his old team, the Washington Redskins, was to play the Eagles, Gibbs recalled the many times he took the Skins to Philadelphia, where the bellicosity on the field often spilled into the stands and beyond. "One year they beat up our mascot in the parking lot," Gibbs said of the more rambunctious strain of Eagles fan. "We all had to chip in and get him stitched up." On Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field, the day's heaviest blows came on the stadium floor, where the Redskins displayed a thumping running game, a mauling defense and well-timed gadgetry. Their 23--17 victory was their second straight on the road against an NFC East rival, no small accomplishment in a division rife with talent and decades of animosity. "Anytime you're winning games, especially in this division, people start talking about you," says Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell. "Now teams are going to put that X on our back." Adds Washington tight end Chris Cooley, "The NFC East is wild right now."
It all looks very familiar. Almost every game was like that during the 1980s and '90s, when the NFC East's four powers (the division also included the Cardinals until 2002) knocked themselves silly trying to rise to the top. Large cities, feisty owners, boisterous fans, legendary coaches and gifted, physical players defined the NFC East in its heyday, when its teams won seven Super Bowls in 10 years, from the 1986 to the '95 seasons. Now the Giants (4--0), Redskins (4--1), Cowboys (4--1) and Eagles (2--3) are harking back to that era, pulverizing opponents and themselves in search of a Super Bowl title. With only one defeat outside the division—the Eagles' loss to Chicago in Week 4—the East is borrowing the mantra of its predecessors: Give it all in the division, and the lumps will only make you stronger.
"The team fortunate enough to win this division will be the team best positioned to win the Super Bowl," says Eagles president Joe Banner, whose club might be among the best half-dozen in the league even as it sits at the bottom of the NFC East. "Some people think you're going to knock yourselves out, but I see the highly competitive team rising to the occasion and being better. The history of the division backs that up."
Of the four teams in the East, the Redskins had appeared to be the least capable of contending this year. Coach Jim Zorn is in his first season, having never before run a club. Campbell is working with his third offensive coordinator in four NFL seasons. In Washington's opening day loss to the Giants, neither the coach nor the quarterback looked comfortable.
But there they were on the sideline on Sunday, Zorn jumping up and down even before the Redskins took the field, Campbell standing in front of him, wondering if the 55-year-old coach, who quarterbacked the Seattle Seahawks for nine seasons in the '70s and '80s, wanted a helmet instead of a headset. "I told him, 'Let me know if you want me to swap pads—you look like you're getting ready to play,'" Campbell said. "He told me, 'Nah, I'm just getting ready for the game too.'"
After Washington fell behind 14--0, the offensive line began channeling the Hogs of old, opening large holes for running back Clinton Portis. The Skins methodically forged a comeback, kicking three field goals in the second quarter, then took the lead in the third when wideout Antwaan Randle El took the ball on an end around and found Cooley for an 18-yard TD pass. "You know how many times we practiced that play?" Zorn said. "Once."
But the telltale play came on fourth-and-one from the Eagles' 38, with the Redskins leading 23--17 and 2:48 remaining. Instead of punting and giving Philly one more chance to score, the Redskins went for the win. From the shotgun formation, Campbell faked a pass to the right and handed the ball to Portis, who rumbled up the middle for the final three of his 145 bruising rushing yards. The Eagles, tough-luck losers in Dallas in Week 2, were victims yet again. "This is a tough division," said Philly defensive end Trent Cole. "Every play has to be right. One play can cost you the whole game."
Jon Jansen, the Redskins' right tackle, said the short-yardage call was a lineman's dream. "We take a lot of pride being able to pound the ball down the field," he said. "It's hard to defend us right now."
As the Redskins dressed for the short trip home, the news from around the division was coming in. The Cowboys had built a quick 17-point lead against Cincinnati, on the way to a 31--22 win. The Giants had crushed Seattle 44--6.
In Dallas, Tony Romo and Terrell Owens are reviving memories of Aikman-to-Irvin. In New York, power back Brandon Jacobs is Ottis Anderson redux, and the front seven is dominating as it did in the days of Leonard Marshall, Harry Carson and LT. And Philly, even with the Eagles battered and bruised, is a place few teams want to visit.