There used to be a time when the Super Bowl went through the NFC East.
Back when Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells and Jimmy Johnson took turns dominating the division, Washington, the Giants and Dallas won the Lombardi Trophy a combined eight times from 1982-95. If you could survive what was often the best division in football, you were often rewarded with a championship.
This year, it’s a far cry from those halcyon days of dominant football. Six weeks into the season, the teams have combined for just five wins, with 2-4 Dallas holding a half game lead over 1-3-1 Philadelphia and the Giants and Washington both at 1-5. We’ve never seen a team win a division with fewer than seven wins, but the NFC Least might be the first.
Compare that with the NFC West, where 5-0 Seattle leads a division where all four teams are .500 or better and have combined for 16 wins.
Let’s put it this way: It’s a good year for Joe Judge to be coaching a rebuilding Giants team that comes off its first win of the season and actually has a meaningful game against the Eagles Thursday night in Philadelphia.
A 1-5 team would be virtually out of the race in the NFC West; for the Giants, they could finish Week 7 tied with the Cowboys atop the division.
"All these divisional games are big, and I think guys understand that," quarterback Daniel Jones said. "Guys have an awareness as to where the division is and the standings."
So, too, must the Giants have an awareness that they are nowhere near good enough to be thinking about a playoff run. Even in a watered-down division – and that may be putting it kindly – this is still a flawed team with questions about the quarterback, the season-long absence of Pro Bowl running back Saquon Barkley and a defense that struggles to close out games.
And to hear Judge tell it, he’s about to face the second coming off the 2017 Eagles team that pulled off an upset of the Patriots in Super Bowl LII to give Philadelphia its Lombardi Trophy.
"This is definitely an explosive team on all sides of the ball," Judge said. "This is an explosive team in the run game and the pass game and can make plays at any turn. Anywhere the ball is on the field, they’re looking to get the thing into the end zone. They do a great job on situational football, so on third down, red area and two-minute, we really need to elevate our level of play to be effective against these guys. They do a great job."
Notoriously critical Eagles fans only wish their team resembled the one Judge described. The fact is that the team has been inconsistent on offense, with Carson Wentz struggling at quarterback and already there are calls for rookie Jalen Hurts to get more playing time. They’ve scored just 141 points and given up 175, and played for a tie against the rebuilding Bengals – something that may help in the long run, especially in a close divisional race, but left fans less than impressed.
"Defensively, [coordinator Jim] Schwartz is one of the top guys in the league," Judge said. "I think he does a great job with his rush, crush, chase mentality. His players play hard, they play disciplined … They do a great job of getting after the passer. But then more importantly than that, they’re very disruptive in creating negative runs and really affecting early downs to put you in those third-and-long situations where they can really get after the passer."
Judge is rightfully concerned with the likes of Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Javon Hargrave, but it’s not like we’re talking about the Reggie White, Seth Joyner, Clyde Simmons Eagles defense under Buddy Ryan. If the Giants don’t wither under the Thursday night lights in their second prime time game of the season, then they figure to be competitive against the Eagles.
In fact, the Giants have been within striking distance in all but one of their games so far. Except for a 36-9 clunker against the injury-riddled 49ers, Judge has his team competitive from week-to-week. They finally punched through on Sunday against Washington, grinding out a 20-19 win after stopping Riverboat Ron Rivera’s team on a two-point play that decided the game in the final seconds.
But this wasn’t Parcells beating Gibbs on the way to either of the Giants’ two Super Bowl wins back in the day. No, this was one bad team beating a worse one.
Nevertheless, it was an important milestone for Judge, who got his first win as a head coach. If he gets his second against an Eagles team that plays not far from where Judge grew up in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, then the coach can show the hometown folks that the Giants will at least be a factor, albeit in a division that leaves plenty to be desired.
"I don’t think anyone in the division needs any motivation to play anyone else in the division," Judge said.
But the coach correctly points out that there shouldn’t be any more emphasis on this week’s game.
"It’s a long year," he said. "We have to keep grinding week by week, but the focus stays on going 1-0 each week."
The Giants are now in the thick of the first part of their divisional schedule, losing to the Cowboys before beating Washington and now facing Philly. They’re home against Tom Brady’s Buccaneers in a Monday night game in Week 8 on Nov. 2 and then visit Washington and host Philadelphia. If they can come out of this stretch with at least two more wins, they’ll still have a shot in the division, especially with Dallas looking so miserable without Dak Prescott.
There are challenging games late in the year against Seattle, Arizona, Cleveland and Baltimore before they finish the season against the Cowboys at home on Jan. 3.
After an 0-5 start, the thought that the finale might decide the NFC East might have seemed preposterous. But given the sad state of the division, anything’s possible.