The Bewildering State of the NFC East: Playoff Implications

By: Madeleine Hudak (Twitter: MaddyHudak_94)

For once, the Cowboys are actually an exquisite representation of “America’s Team” in the year 2020. And they’re just one of the four teams who constitute the dumpster fire known colloquially as the NFC East. A division that, collectively, holds a 5-18-1 record heading into Week 7. 

The perplexing NFC East – where a team can simultaneously be one game away from leading their division, and one game away from having the No. 1 overall draft pick. Currently, the Dallas Cowboys lead the division with a 2-4 record. A historical feat for the team indeed, cemented by their 38-10 loss on Monday night: 

I can’t decide which is most insulting: the 5-18-1 record (of which 3 wins have come against each other), the fact that the 1-5 Giants, the 1-4-1 Eagles, and the 1-5 Washington Football team all have a chance to win the division, or that no matter the outcome, the NFC East champion is guaranteed to host a playoff game – potentially, with a losing record. It’s time to assess the putrid state of the NFC East, the implications of this historically awful scenario, and begrudgingly, the absurdly close race to the playoffs that all four teams remain in. 

What is so horribly wrong with the NFC East?

There were decidedly low expectations for Washington and the Giants – all but decimated for the latter with the loss of Barkley, but the Cowboys and Eagles were certainly touted as “Super Bowl contenders.” Well, by rabid local fans at the least. For those of us who are objective, this trajectory isn’t exactly not par for the course. Every year, the Cowboys are shoved down our throats as a dynasty; every year, they absolutely blow it in games. The Eagles have always been seen as somewhat scrappy, but they’ve never lived back up to the enormous hype stemming solely from 2017 – where they became champions with their since-discarded backup quarterback. The Giants have been slowly plummeting into the abyss since Eli Manning’s departure, and are the least surprising conundrum with Barkley’s Week 2 season-ending injury. The Washington Football Team, frankly, have the best outing this season by supplying us with an insane comeback story, no matter how brief, and for no longer being overtly racist (though it is decidedly irritating that you can’t exactly call them “the Football Team”). 

We’ll break down the specifics of each team’s respective woes along with their potential path to the playoffs later, but regardless, the NFC East champion this year will be easily the most putrid division champ in the 21st century, and likely NFL history. There is a legitimate possibility that the NFC East champion will have a 5-11 record. The Washington Post’s Neil Greenberg created a database and through 1,000 simulations of the season, accounting for actual and expected records, not only is a 5-11 champion a possibility, but Washington won with a 4-12 record in one, and Eagles won the division with a 4-11-1 record three times. The most likely projected winning record, at 32%, is a 7-9 or 7-8-1 NFC East Champ. Which frankly would be a blessing. However, if we’re going off of actual season performance, the 5-11 champion scenario becomes much more believable. And at that rate, the 5-0 Seahawks would have already won the division. For the full simulation breakdown:

The worst part isn’t even that a putrid 5-11 team may win the division. What will end up happening, and has happened many times in the past, is that an 11+ win Wild Card team will have the displeasure of playing this road game. Which they’ll likely win, but are then stuck at a No. 5 seed trying to reach the Super Bowl on the road. Historically speaking, Wild Card berths do not bode well for the Super Bowl – only 10 Wild Card teams have ever made the Super Bowl; just six have won. The NFC East is not the sole offender of a losing playoff record, but a look back at the last 10 years paints a disturbing picture of the NFC playoff seeding, all centered around a mediocre, nearly perpetually No. 4 seed in the East.

The NFC East Playoff Effect: 10-year review

Is this season nothing more than an anomaly, or is the NFC East the singular most important argument for restructuring the NFL playoffs? In looking back at the past decade at the NFC playoff standings – importantly, the Wild Card berths and teams that missed the playoffs with winning records – it paints a concerning picture. Since 2010, the NFC East division champion has finished with a 10-6 record four times (2010, 2012-13, 2018) and a 9-7 record three times (2011, 2015, 2019). That equates to three out of the last 10 seasons that their division has broken 11 wins. To break it down for perspective:

11+ wins (2010-2019)

NFC East: 3 seasons

NFC North: 8 seasons

NFC South: 9 seasons

NFC West: 8 seasons

– Since 2010, five teams have failed to make the playoffs with a 10-6 record – in fairness, two of those teams were the Eagles and the Giants. 

– In the years NFC East champions had 10 wins or less, 8 Wild Card teams had the same record (with one 9-7 outlier in 2018 – ironically out of the East). 

– There have been four NFC Wild Card teams from 2010-2019 that had an 11-5 record.

– In 2013, the 10-6 NFC East Champions held home field advantage over Wild Card teams that had 12-4 and 11-5 records. 

In terms of which divisions held those slots in the seven NFC East 10 wins or less seasons, NFC East: 1, NFC North: 5, NFC South: 3, NFC West: 5.

It’s not exactly groundbreaking to warn against the perils of a Wild Card berth, one that has no homefield advantage (but for No. 5 over No. 6), nor a first round bye. Past the fact that multiple 10-6 teams have failed to make the playoffs, while that’s a sure bet in the East, it’s absurd that 12-4 has led to a Wild Card berth for any other division multiple times. I’ve always been a strong proponent of a simple fix: you don’t have a record over .500, you do not make the playoffs. Rather than this tepid expansion plan, this is a simple competitive barometer. There’s literally no way to change divisions, so what are juggernauts like the North, South and West supposed to do? Set the bar at 14 wins?

For a simple exercise, given the repeated 10-6 record, let’s say you needed at least 11 wins to win your division and lock up a top 4 seed. You still would remain in the playoffs, but the highest Wild Card record would become the respective No. 3 or 4 seed. To keep it clean, should a Wild Card team have the same 10-6 record, the typical tiebreaker rules apply – head-to-head if applicable, followed by won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference. 2010 and 2012 were simply picked at random.

2010 Playoff Seeding:

1. Atlanta Falcons (13-3)

2. Chicago Bears (11-5)

3. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)

4. Seattle Seahawks (7-9)

5. New Orleans Saints (11-5)

6. Green Bay Packers (10-6)

The New Orleans Saints (5) were knocked out of the Wild Card round in Seattle (4). The Eagles (3) lost in the Wild Card round to Green Bay (6), who went all the way to the Super Bowl on the road.

2010 Adjusted Seeding:

1. Atlanta Falcons (13-3)

2. Chicago Bears (11-5)

3. New Orleans Saints (11-5)

4. Green Bay Packers (10-6)*

5. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)

6. Seattle Seahawks (7-9)** 

* Head-to-head tiebreaker Wk 1

** Rightly so

The Saints still play the Seahawks, but this time, they’re in the Superdome.  That game had a close 41-36 score. Do the Seahawks still win without their 12th man, Qwest Field? Or, what would have happened if Seattle still won? In this alternate seeding, Green Bay would have played that year’s NFC Championship game in the Divisional round vs. Chicago, but they may have met Seattle in the NFC Championship game. The Packers should easily still make the Super Bowl, especially having some homefield advantage, but it’s a completely different picture. In turn, the Packers at No. 4 would have made that Wild Card Super Bowl stat that much more exclusive.

2012 Playoff Seeding:

1. Atlanta Falcons (13-3)

2. San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1)

3. Green Bay Packers (11-5)

4. Washington Redskins (10-6)

5. Seattle Seahawks (11-5)

6. Minnesota Vikings (10-6)

The Minnesota Vikings (6) were knocked out of the Wild Card round in Green Bay (3). Washington (4) lost in the Wild Card round against Seattle (5). Both Green Bay and Seattle lost their respective Divisional matchups on the road.

2012 Adjusted Seeding:

1. Atlanta Falcons (13-3)

2. San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1)

3. Green Bay Packers (11-5)

4. Seattle Seahawks (11-5)

5. Washington Redskins (10-6)*

6. Minnesota Vikings (10-6)

* Head-to-head tiebreaker Wk 6

The Seahawks (4) would win again, just this time with homefield advantage. Here’s the difference maker: Seattle had to fly to FedEx field as the Wild Card team, and lost the subsequent Divisional game against Atlanta by just 2 points. What happens if the Seahawks had that first week of travel back and only had to fly to the Georgia Dome? Does the added rest and ease of two weeks of practice at home push them to a field-goal win over the Falcons? The same scenario applies to Green Bay, but their 45-31 Divisional loss to San Francisco is decidedly less close; plus, their Wild Card game was only over in Minnesota.

Is this complete conjecture and hypotheticals? Absolutely. But you could do this with multiple years from 2010-2019, and it’s genuinely debatable whether the same end results would remain. I’m still too angry as a Saints fan from 2019, and we weren’t a Wild Card team, but the fact that three 13-3 teams were battling for the top two seeds up until the last minutes of Week 17, while the 9-7 Eagles sat idly by at No. 4 (over the 11-5 Seahawks and 10-6 Vikings), is an incredibly hard pill to swallow. Particularly when, in this alternate timeline, the Saints don’t lose to Minnesota and instead likely beat Philadelphia to a pulp. 

Home field advantage matters. It’s not fair to these perpetually competitive divisions to have a division with 10 wins or less seven of the last ten seasons; not only do they retain homefield advantage, but it’s safe to say they can basically stop trying once they hit their 10th win. Meanwhile, out of the last 20 Wild Card teams, 9 teams have had a 10-6 record, with other years higher. While the East gets to get every single Wild Card round jitters out of the way comfortably at home, these teams are immediately on the road. In fact, 6 of those 10-6 teams were the No. 6 seed and were on the road the entire playoffs, as far as they made it. 

This was intended to map out the NFC East road to the playoffs, but frankly, it’s a complete shot in the dark and too insulting to ponder over. Should the East champion have 5 wins, the 5-0 Seattle Seahawks and 5-1 Green Bay Packers would already have won the division. The NFC East is hilariously awful, but when it comes to the playoffs, and the effect they (don’t) have on seeding with a guaranteed slot each year, it becomes quite concerning for the legitimacy of the NFL. 

The additional playoff seed is ultimately just allowing one more mediocre team into the playoffs. What really needs fixing, and what potentially would have reshaped the last 10 years of the NFC playoffs, is the disproportionate competition levels that remain entirely unchecked. I’m not calling for re-working divisions or anything crazy, but it seems quite simple to me: a team with a losing record should blatantly not be a Top 4 seed, let alone in the playoffs. 

Should this year’s NFC East champion indeed be a 5-11 team, the NFL might finally have to address this erroneous blemish of a division, and critically think about playoff seeding in future years. With all that said, given that Carson Wentz is the only legitimate quarterback left in the NFC East with Prescott’s injury, they’re the strongest bet to win the division. For league legitimacy sake, I hope it comes at the hands of a 7-8-1 record. Is that too much to ask for?

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