Munch on this mind-bender for a moment: Alex Smith’s devastating injury might have saved Jason Garrett’s job.
Welcome to the state-of-the-NFC-East address, where things have gotten a bit weird — and honestly, pretty ugly.
The one team, Washington, that’s over .500 entering Week 12 just lost Smith, its starting quarterback, for the season. The one team almost universally picked to repeat as East champs, Philadelphia, just lost its fifth game in seven tries and has the worst record through 10 games by a defending Super Bowl champion. The New York Giants, who started out 1-7, are somehow still in the race.
And that leaves Garrett and the Cowboys, at 5-5, presumably as the favorites (we think?) to win the division and host a playoff game. When the Cowboys lost to the Tennessee Titans two weeks ago, the Dallas Morning News pre-wrote the head coach’s obituary — “Jason Garrett is finished.”
“The team is just really picking up right now,” Cowboys QB Dak Prescott said after their last-second win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. “Everyone is buying into their role. No matter how big it is. No matter how small it is on offense, defense, and special teams. Everyone is just buying into their role and we’re all coming together. We’re all playing more comfortable and better, complimentary football. When you can do that, you get wins like we did tonight on the road.”
Still, there probably isn’t a likely scenario where the NFC East champs will be home favorites, save for the Panthers or Seahawks earning the No. 5 playoff seed but losing Cam Newton or Russell Wilson to injury in the final game of the regular season.
That’s a pretty sobering thought about the state of the division. But it’s reality.
We can’t bury Washington, which currently is the East leader at 6-4. The loss of Smith is huge, even if he hadn’t been having a banner season and with backup Colt McCoy rallying the team to within a few yards of victory against the Houston Texans on Sunday. As of Monday, there was no third QB on the roster — or on the practice squad.
Washington currently holds an edge on the Cowboys with a head-to-head victory over the Cowboys in Week 7 and a 2-0 division mark ahead of Thursday’s showdown at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. But just as this season has proven, one week can tilt the entire operation on its head. If the Cowboys win there, both teams will be on even footing heading into the final stretch of the season.
“We’ve got a big one against as big a rivalry (Washington) as there is in sport," Jones said. “I think it’s fitting for football fans [on] Thanksgiving. Certainly our fans to have a lot at stake there when you are having that national holiday. It’s a big deal for us. ...
“We are so proud to be what we have been to the NFL on Thanksgiving Day and to have it boil down to a game of this substance... That will be a treat on Thanksgiving Day.”
Four of Washington’s six remaining games are on the road. Dallas gets four of six at home to close out, but it hosts the Saints and has a suddenly tricky matchup at the surging Colts in Week 13.
"I have confidence in Colt, always have. I'm a big, firm believer in Colt McCoy's ability to play football in the National Football League," head coach Jay Gruden said after McCoy took over for Smith, who suffered a season-ending leg injury. "This is an opportunity of a lifetime for him. I know he would like it in different circumstances, but things happen for a reason."
Are the Eagles even in this thing? The numbers say yes, but their recent work says they might not have much in the tank. Sunday’s 48-7 smashing at the hands of the Saints was the biggest loss a defending champion has suffered in NFL history, and the Eagles’ Week 10 loss in Philadelphia to the Cowboys gives Dallas a big tiebreaker edge right now.
How do the Eagles rally after two gutting losses? Head coach Doug Pederson said he’s trying to explain to his team how the door is still very much open for a return to the playoffs.
"I told them not to hang their head,” Pederson said. “I told them that we’re gonna come to work this week. We got a great opportunity in front of us. We’re gonna stay committed.
“I asked them that — I'm gonna lead this football team, and [they’ll] follow me. And it's every man in there. But we're gonna look at the tape, we're gonna fix the mistakes and be ready for New York."
A little over a month ago, the Eagles thumped the Giants in their most complete performance of the season. The Giants fell behind 31-6 early in the third quarter and never really felt like they were in the game. That dropped New York to 1-5, which was followed by two more losses.
Now these teams meet in a strangely big game at Philly this week. Would it be totally stunning to see the Giants, who at least have shown life in beating the 49ers and Buccaneers in back-to-back games, win in this spot? It might have been their first winning “streak” in 700 days (for real), but the Giants are technically in this thing and could really get back in by beating the Eagles.
“Crazy, isn’t it?” Giants head coach Pat Shurmur said. “That’s why I said through the first eight weeks, ‘You just have to keep playing. You never know.’ If we let the noise get to us and get us all dark and stormy and weird about things, then you’re not set up to do anything at the end of the season. …
“If we can keep battling and fighting, who knows? Who knows? That’ll be a fun thing for everybody to write.”
It's worth noting that no team since 1990 has started a season 1-7 and made the NFL playoffs; neither has a team that started 3-7, for that matter. The 2008 Chargers opened 4-7 and actually won a playoff game, but that was a rare feat.
It says something, though, that the Giants have not been eliminated, mathematically or otherwise. And there is actually a very real scenario where all four NFC East teams are 6-7 entering Week 15. That’s no joke. It would take the Cowboys beating Washington and the Giants beating the Eagles in Week 13, followed by the Giants beating the Chicago Bears in New York and the Saints beating the Cowboys.
In a season where the Saints have only lost to the Buccaneers and the Bills beat the Vikings in Minnesota, no result can be deemed too strange.
When the Cowboys traded for Amari Cooper, it was a multi-layered move with a lot of tentacles. But it certainly sent one clear message: That Dallas saw an opening in the division. So far, the gamble to send a first-round pick to Oakland has paid off, and making the postseason would turn that pick — which not long ago was projected to be in the top-10 with the Cowboys sitting at 3-5 — into the 21st overall selection.
Fighting back from that and earning a home playoff game would make the trade worth it for now, it appears. And it would have farther-reaching effects, too, if it means Garrett keeps his job. The first flap of the butterfly effect might not have been the Cooper trade or the Smith injury by themselves, but we’re in full chaos-effect mode now in this division.
Really, any result is theoretically possible. We should probably just embrace the weird and see how it plays out. But what felt impossible only a few weeks ago — Garrett keeping his job and the Cowboys being the presumptive division favorites — absolutely cannot be discounted now.