LANDOVER, Md. — We shouldn’t compare the NFC East to the rest of the NFL, because the teams in this division have played like they should be in a different league. In this division, failure is a key component to a first-place experience. Losing here means upward mobility.
In Philadelphia, fans have been fed up with coach Chip Kelly for weeks. Each week, the New York Giants have found new ways to squander late leads. And on Monday night, the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins showed how bad things truly are in the Cowboys’ 19-16 victory. Turnovers, shaky quarterback play and inefficiency on third down were part of the winning team’s repertoire.
On their home field, the Redskins could have taken sole possession of first place, but in perfect form for this collection of teams, they stumbled at the finish, making two major mistakes on special teams — Dallas recovered a fumble on a punt return to set up a touchdown and broke a long kickoff return to help set up a game-winning field goal — in the final two minutes that cost them the game.
The result: The Eagles, Giants and Redskins are each 5-7. Yes, a three-way tie for first. Even the bumbling AFC South can’t compete. At least that tie for first place involves a .500 record. And now, at 4-8, the Cowboys, losers of seven straight during one stretch, are back in the hunt. “I would never have dreamed it,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said.
He’s not the only one. The preseason division favorite Cowboys jumped out to a 2-0 start. Without star quarterback Tony Romo, who has played in only four games and is out for the remainder of the season because of a collarbone injury, things came unglued.
Against Washington, journeyman Dallas quarterback Matt Cassel struggled to move the offense. Running back Darren McFadden was stripped twice and lost both fumbles. The Cowboys had three turnovers and went 1-for-9 on third down. All part of the formula for an NFC East win. Cassel didn’t attempt to sugarcoat what has happened in the division.
“It’s weird” that the Cowboys still are in the mix for the title, he said. “I’m thankful that that’s the case.”
Cassel also should be thankful the Redskins were horrendous on special teams near the end. Let’s start with DeSean Jackson’s blockheaded decision on a punt return. Let’s review once more in case you gave up waiting for an actual touchdown.
With 1 minute, 47 seconds on the game clock, Dallas punted from its 43-yard line. Jackson caught the ball at Washington’s 16, ran right, where he had the option to run out near the 30-yard line, then decided to reverse field. But not only did he go in reverse, he ran back to barely a yard from his own end zone, then recovered, only to lose the ball while being tackled at the 9-yard line. Dallas recovered it at the 15. To call it a gaffe understates it.
“I fumbled and I know better than that,” Jackson said. “Protect the ball under any circumstances and get down.”
That’s some sound thinking, which occurred too late.
Jackson is one of those rare players who’s a threat to score from anywhere on the field. Who could forget his electrifying 65-yard touchdown on a punt return against the Giants to complete a stunning Eagles rally in 2010? That established, Jackson’s risky move was as foolish as it gets.
“Well, it didn’t end up, obviously, the way we wanted it to,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said.
Now, here’s where the situation gets even more ridiculous. Dallas was on Washington’s 15-yard line with 1:26 remaining. The textbook move in that situation is to down the ball, thus running down the clock, and kick a short field goal. Inexplicably, the Cowboys gave the ball to McFadden, who covered the 15 yards on two rushes for a touchdown.
For the Cowboys, the problem was that only seven seconds elapsed on the clock. After a long 41-yard kickoff return and a face-mask penalty, quarterback Kirk Cousins had more than enough time to work. Cousins, who’s in the final push of a contract drive, made his best throw of the game — a 28-yard touchdown strike to Jackson into the right corner of the end zone.
The Redskins, of course, had one more colossal blunder to make. On the ensuing kickoff, Lucky Whitehead raced 46 yards to the Redskins’ 44-yard line. Cassel and Dez Bryant teamed for 20 yards on two completions to set up kicker Dan Bailey, who connected on a 54-yard game-winner in the closing seconds.
“The sad part is that it was all laid out right there in front of us,” veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. “Man, with what’s been going on in this division, this was a great opportunity for us.”
The Giants have five losses in games in which they held a fourth-quarter lead. They’ve blown three double-digit leads.
Although the Eagles defeated the AFC East-leading Patriots in a stunner Sunday, Kelly, who has watched the team collapse after his controversial moves in the offseason, still is facing anger in Philly. He’ll need a lot more than one impressive victory for the get-Kelly-out-of-town chatter to quiet down. As for the Redskins, they’re winless (0-5) on the road. Gruden insists the Redskins have made progress. If it has occurred, though, how could anyone tell in the NFC East?
“The records aren’t good but there are good teams” in the division, Gruden said. “There is a lot of talent on these football teams that we’re playing.”
Other divisions have down years too. Last season, the Carolina Panthers went 7-8-1 en route to the NFC South title. In 2010, the Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West at 7-9. It’s just that in the NFC East this season, each week brings more head-scratchers from every team.
“You can definitely say that a lot of teams have had chances at different times and just haven’t gotten it done,” Hall said. “But we’re not going to worry about other teams. We’re going to get another chance, so we have to go make the most of it. I’ll tell you one thing: I know we want to win this division.”
Presumably, the other teams do as well. They’ve just all done a horrible job of showing it.
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