A Buccaneers fan holds a sign that reads, "Cry Eagles Cry!!!"...

A Buccaneers fan holds a sign that reads, "Cry Eagles Cry!!!" during the fourth quarter in the NFC Wild Card Playoffs between the Eagles and the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on Monday in Tampa, Fla. Credit: Getty Images/Julio Aguilar

The Giants spent months last offseason trying to close the significant gap that existed between them and the Cowboys and Eagles in the NFC East, mostly to no avail.

It turns out patience may have been their best tool all along.

The Giants never seemed to get significantly better (thanks mostly to injuries and some miscalculations regarding depth at key positions), but in the last few weeks, that space between them and their division rivals has shrunk considerably — not due to any progress they made but mostly because of the regressions in Dallas and Philadelphia.

Seeing both teams get bumped from the wild-card round of the playoffs in ignominious fashion  gave the Giants some rare schadenfreude (don’t think for one second that the entire organization wasn’t giddy watching Jerry Jones squirm through last weekend’s loss to the Packers). It also clearly demonstrated that the two franchises that seemed to rule the division have a tenuous hold on it going into 2024.

Throw in what figures to be a reinvigorated and reorganized Commanders club and the NFC East is about to be something it hasn’t been for quite some time: Up for grabs by any of the four teams in it.

That certainly wasn’t the case when the 2023 season began.

The Eagles had just reached the previous Super Bowl, had a young and still improving MVP candidate at quarterback and were bringing back a slew of veterans for one last title push. Right up until around Thanksgiving, they were among the elite teams in the league, winning 10 of their first 11 games.

Then the slide began, and now they are a franchise in flux. They lost six of their last seven games, with their only win in that stretch coming against the Giants at The Linc. They flopped against those same Giants in their regular-season finale at MetLife Stadium, lost the division title, then were outclassed by a Tampa Bay team that had managed to win the dreadful NFC South with a 9-8 record. There  even was uncertainty during this past week about whether Nick Sirianni would be back as head coach and plenty more angst about who their coordinators will be moving forward.

The Cowboys? They thought this was their year, just as they do every year. And there were times when that confidence almost seemed warranted (such as the two throttlings they gave the Giants).

Dak Prescott of the Cowboys sits on the bench during the...

Dak Prescott of the Cowboys sits on the bench during the fourth quarter of the NFC Wild Card Playoff game against the Packers at AT&T Stadium on Sunday in Arlington, Texas. Credit: Getty Images/Richard Rodriguez

Then came the playoff loss to the Packers last week, when they became the first No. 2 seed to lose in the wild-card round since the 14-team postseason format was adopted in 2020.

"This seems like the most painful [playoff loss] because we all had such great expectations and had hope for this team," Jones said. "I'm floored. This is beyond my comprehension."

The Cowboys haven’t been to a conference title game since 1995. They have reached the playoffs 13 times since then. They are the only team in NFL history to have three consecutive 12-win regular seasons and not reach at least one conference championship game.

There is an entire generation of adult Cowboys fans who have never seen them in a Super Bowl in their lifetime. The worst diminishment of those audacious stars on their helmets: Heading into the divisional round, the Cowboys weren’t even the best, most entertaining or most optimistic team in Texas!

Even so, Jones decided to stick with Mike McCarthy as his head coach rather than wade into a hiring cycle that could have included the chance to hire Bill Belichick, Mike Vrabel or even his own defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn.

“I’m going to take no responsibility, and I talked to the players too, and they have no responsibility on what’s gone on here in the 20-plus years before this point,” McCarthy said this past week (which sounds a lot like what Jets coach Robert Saleh says, frankly). “We’re responsible for what’s going on in the program. I know it’s disappointing to the fans, but we are in position to learn and grow from this and build on it.”

This past week has felt like something different for Dallas, though. Philadelphia, too. It feels much more like a door closing on their chances to win it all in their present incarnations than it does propping that door open for another pass at it in 2024.

That doesn’t mean the Giants are in position to take over the division simply by default. Far from it. Even though they managed to win that last game against the Eagles, all it did was snap a mind-bogging streak of 10 straight losses in games against Philly and Dallas that came at an average score of 32.8 to 13.9. And that lone victory was with a Giants quarterback who probably won’t be on the team next season, a running back who might not be on the team next season and a defensive coordinator who definitely will not be with the team next season.

The Giants have a lot of work to do in the coming months to help pinch shut that glaring span between themselves and the top of the division as much as possible. The gap still exists. The best news for them in more than a year, though, is that they aren’t at it alone.

The Eagles and Cowboys seem to be doing their best to move toward that objective as well.

Playoff QBs are getting younger, but Rodgers isn't

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Heading into the NFL’s divisional round, every starting quarterback left has something in common: None has celebrated his 30th birthday.

Detroit's Jared Goff is the oldest at 29. Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes  and Tampa Bay's Baker Mayfield are 28. Two of them aren’t even 25 yet — San Francisco's Brock Purdy (24) and Houston rookie C.J. Stroud (22).

Given their youth and the experience they are accumulating in their Roaring Twenties, it stands to reason that they will get even better in the coming years. While most positions in the game start to see a physical decline around the age of 30, that seems to be when quarterbacks typically hit their prime.

It is in this world that the Jets are pinning their hopes on a quarterback who, if they manage to be in the postseason a year from now, will be 41 years old. These days, that’s closer to the typical age of a head coach of a playoff-caliber team  than a quarterback.

Aaron Rodgers of the Jets looks on prior to playing the...

Aaron Rodgers of the Jets looks on prior to playing the Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Dec. 28, 2023 in Cleveland. Credit: Nick Cammett

Aaron Rodgers indeed may come back in 2024 and regain something close to the form he had during his four MVP seasons with the Packers. He may be able to overcome the Achilles injury that robbed him (and us) of a 2023 season filled with promise and potential. He may be the guy who can end the Jets’ 13-year streak without a postseason appearance, the longest in North American pro sports.

If he can do any of that, it’ll be bucking a league trend that has the most important position on any team getting younger and younger.

Tom Brady’s remarkable run into his mid-40s felt at the time like a glimpse into a future in which quarterbacks, with the help of medicine and nutrition, routinely stick around to win championships for multiple decades. One year after Brady took his final bow from the playoffs, though, his long tenure is more of an outlier than a new norm.

Counting on Old Man Rodgers to save the Jets was a desperation shot heading into 2023 that the team had to take. Asking him to compete against this new crop of stars in 2024, though, seems more misguided than it was less than a year ago.

The Toney goes to . . . 

Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes are the marquee names for the marquee matchup this weekend when Kansas City plays at Buffalo on Sunday night. But the guy who had more say in these two teams meeting — and where they are doing so — isn’t one of the quarterbacks or even a tight end with a famous girlfriend.

Kadarius Toney already has impacted this year’s playoffs without playing a single snap in more than a month, and if he gets on the field Sunday, there is a good chance the former Giants first-round pick will continue to make his imprint on the rivalry.

It was Toney who caught the lateral pass from Travis Kelce and appeared to score the game-winning touchdown in the Week 14 meeting between the teams. It was Toney who was flagged for being in the neutral zone at the start of that play, negating it and allowing the Bills to win, 20-17. It was that head-to-head tiebreaker that placed this contest in Western New York with the Bills owning the No. 2 seed.

Kansas City wide receiver Kadarius Toney runs to the end...

Kansas City wide receiver Kadarius Toney runs to the end zone after catching a lateral by teammate Travis Kelce during the second half of an NFL game against the Bills on Dec. 10, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo.  Credit: AP/Ed Zurga

Had Kansas City won that game, the Bills wouldn’t have even been in the postseason. They had to win their last five regular-season games to get there and then beat Pittsburgh on Monday to advance to this matchup.

As for Toney, he hasn’t played since Dec. 17 because of a hip injury. He was limited in practice this past week and listed as questionable heading into Sunday night’s game.

If he plays, look for something odd to occur around him. Giants fans already knew it from their short time together and now Kansas City fans are learning it this season: Sometimes for the better, often for the worse, Toney is a magnet for strange football happenings.

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