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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

How far the mighty NFC East has fallen

Cowboys defensive back Steven Parker makes a flying

Cowboys defensive back Steven Parker makes a flying tackle on Giants tight end Evan Engram during the second quarter on Oct. 11 at AT&T Stadium Stadium in Arlington, Texas.  Credit: TNS/Tom Fox

Giants-Cowboys for a possible divisional title on the final NFL Sunday of the regular season.

It’s as good as it gets in the NFC East.

In theory, anyway.

In reality, both teams have benefited from a collective misery never before seen in a division that once was held up as the best in the NFL and among the best in NFL history.

Super Bowl winners used to emerge from the NFC East, teams that will go down as some of the most impressive ever. Bill Parcells’ 1986 and 1990 Giants. Joe Gibbs’ three Super Bowl champions in Washington. Tom Landry’s Dallas dynasty of the 1970s and Jimmy Johnson’s of the 1990s. And Tom Coughlin’s champions from 2007 and 2011.

Now?

This division might be won by a 6-10 team.

Really.

No, this is not your father’s NFC East.

Or your grandfather’s.

This is the NFC Least at its worst.

It is a division in which the Giants and Washington are in overhaul mode, the Cowboys are still recovering from Dak Prescott’s season-ending ankle injury at the hands of Giants safety Logan Ryan, and the Eagles — just three years removed from their first-ever Super Bowl victory — are a mess.

Someone has to win it, even though it has felt for the last few weeks as if no one is actually capable of doing so. Dallas has put together a semblance of a late-season run with three straight wins, and a victory over the Giants coupled with a Washington loss to the Eagles would give coach Mike McCarthy the NFC East title in his first season.

Washington got to six wins before Alex Smith, a remarkable comeback story as he plays on a reconstructed right leg, suffered a right calf injury. That sent his team into a tailspin that ended with former first-round pick Dwayne Haskins’ ouster after only 31 games. Perhaps Smith can return on Sunday to beat the Eagles and cap his incredible comeback with a divisional title at 7-9.

No matter how bad the division is, that’s something worth appreciating, because Smith has shown the kind of resilience and determination that make sports so compelling. And why Washington-Philly is in prime time — another stroke of good fortune in a league that can do no wrong when it comes to creating meaningful Week 17 matchups, even in a division this bad.

But the cold, hard football reality is this: The 35-year-old Smith is not the long-term answer at quarterback, and Washington likely will invest another high pick in a passer this year in hopes of building sustainable success.

Quarterback issues have flared in Philadelphia, where Eagles coach Doug Pederson was left with no choice but to bench struggling former first-round pick Carson Wentz and go with rookie Jalen Hurts.

Joe Judge has stood solidly in Daniel Jones’ corner to proclaim that he is the Giants’ quarterback of the future, even if his performance this season leaves you with more questions than answers.

Jones certainly is a victim of a rebuilding offensive line, the absence of Saquon Barkley and a dearth of big-time receiving targets, and that was before hamstring and ankle injuries slowed him. But roster shortcomings and another ankle injury were issues last year, too. Jones still had 24 touchdown passes in 2019 compared to nine this year. A disappointment by any measure.

Dallas finally may have adjusted to Prescott’s absence, with former Bengals starter Andy Dalton now taking advantage of a talented receiving corps that features rookie first-round pick CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. In the Cowboys’ three-game winning streak, Dalton has thrown six touchdown passes and one interception.

If the Cowboys learned anything, it’s that they can’t afford to let Prescott walk after the season. He played on the franchise tag in 2020, but he needs to be signed long-term to provide stability at the team’s most important position.

It will give Dallas a major advantage moving forward as Jones struggles to acclimate to the pro game, the Wentz-Hurts saga plays out and Washington looks for its own answer at quarterback for the long haul.

So, yeah, enjoy this final regular- season weekend in the NFC East. Thanks to this historic downturn, this will be the final piece of the NFL’s playoff puzzle to be assembled after the Sunday night matchup between Washington and Philly.

But let’s hope we can recapture a time like the one when there was magic in the NFC East. Not four teams that can’t even play .500 football.

Darnold’s farewell?

It's hard to believe that a player who came to New York with such high expectations in 2018 might be playing his final game with the Jets on Sunday.

No, it’s not a given that Sam Darnold will be out after he faces the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. But the mere fact that his future remains uncertain speaks to how quickly reality can change.

The Jets are sure to part ways with coach Adam Gase after a failed two-year regime. And while Darnold’s situation remains complicated by the circumstances the team will face after Gase’s departure, it certainly is not beyond the realm of possibility that general manager Joe Douglas will move on from a quarterback he once considered untouchable.

There still is plenty of time for Darnold, who is only 23, to reach his potential. And Douglas may decide to stick with him for at least another year if he doesn’t believe there is a sure thing at quarterback in next year’s draft.

Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence was thought to be out of the picture because the Jets, after losing their first 13 games, don’t have the first overall pick.

Then again, Lawrence’s mistake-filled 49-28 loss to Ohio State and quarterback Justin Fields in the Sugar Bowl on Friday night might have created additional draft-day opportunities for Douglas. Fields threw a Sugar Bowl-record six touchdown passes and injected himself into the conversation of players who could go at the very top of the draft.

But a new coach will have plenty of say about the direction of the franchise, especially at quarterback. So yes, there is a very real chance that Darnold’s matchup against Bill Belichick’s defense will be his final one in a Jets uniform.

And if that’s the case, best of luck to a great competitor who deserves a shot wherever he winds up. Darnold has been the consummate professional, a great leader who never criticizes a teammate or a coach and who always — always — holds himself accountable.

There may not be as many touchdowns and wins as he’d like, but this is a guy who knows how to carry himself. He’s a player Jets fans ought to root for — even if he’s not with the Jets.

Cam a one-and-done?

This isn’t the way Cam Newton had hoped things would work out in New England. He’d hoped to turn a one-year deal into a long-term relationship, but it’s highly likely the Patriots will look elsewhere to fill the yawning void left by Tom Brady’s departure.

Newton’s biggest regret: Not having enough time to digest the Patriots’ complicated offensive scheme.

"I’ve been in this league long enough to kind of always downplay, like, ‘Man, we don’t need preseason. We don’t need OTAs. We don’t need; we’re ready to go,’ " Newton said in advance of Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Jets. "Yeah, maybe if I was still in the system I came from. But learning this system, yeah, you just need more time, you need more real reps to kind of go through because there’s only but so much you can kind of make up."

Newton has only five touchdown passes and 12 rushing touchdowns, by far the least productive year of his career. He’s still only 31, but he might not have much of a future as a starter.

"I still can be better," he said. "I still can be more consistent. Some of the throws that I’ve had I wish I would have had back. But yet nobody cares about the circumstances, nobody cares about the waves or the tide that’s in the water. They just care about you just reeling that ship on in, and I didn’t do that consistently enough."

Rudolph-Garrett rematch

The Browns can reach the playoffs with a victory over the Steelers, who are resting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in advance of the playoffs.

Browns defensive end Myles Garrett will face off against Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph for the first time since the two were involved in a melee last season that resulted in a six-game suspension for Garrett.

The defensive end ripped Rudolph’s helmet off and struck him in the head with it, incurring an indefinite suspension. He was reinstated in the offseason. Garrett said Rudolph called him a racial slur, something the quarterback repeatedly has denied. The NFL determined that no racial epithet was used.

The two have not spoken since the incident, and Rudolph said he’s not looking for closure.

"He has not reached out to me in any capacity, but I have a lot of respect for Myles," Rudolph told reporters Friday.

Garrett downplayed the meeting, saying the incident "won't run through my mind at all. He’ll get hit just like everybody else. I’m not going to put a pillow under his head before I take him to the ground. But I’m not going to do anything extra. It’s just a game. It’s an important game."

Around the league

Patriots receiver Julian Edelman likely won’t be back next season. A knee injury limited him to six games this year, and at age 34, there’s a realistic chance he has played his final NFL game. Does Bill Belichick believe Edelman will return in 2021? "I think it’s way too early to start talking about next year," he said . . . The Ravens' Lamar Jackson needs 92 rushing yards against the Bengals on Sunday to become the first quarterback with at least 1,000 rushing yards in two seasons. Jackson ran for 1,206 yards last season . . . Pederson won’t speculate, but don’t be surprised if the Eagles move on from tight end Zach Ertz next season . . . Titans running back Derrick Henry leads the NFL with 1,777 rushing yards and can become the first player since Chargers Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson (2006-07) to lead the league in rushing in back-to-back seasons.

New York Sports