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Line of Scrimmage: NFC East in '06 - The Best Division Ever?

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Old 05-19-2006, 10:38 AM   #1
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Line of Scrimmage: NFC East in '06 - The Best Division Ever?


Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Two teams come off their first playoff appearance in a number of years, and are seeking to build on those achievements. One team just missed the postseason, and its legendary head coach has added personnel in the interests of reaching the Super Bowl immediately. A fourth team is two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance, and is bound and determined to shake off an injury and turmoil-ravaged 2005 and get back to that plateau.

Oh, and all four teams happen to play in the same division.

The New York Giants, Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively, fit the descriptions above. Their collective presence in the NFC East could make the division the best and most competitive in league annals, though at least one of the fearsome four will fall short of its postseason goal.

Last year, it was the Giants (11-5) and Redskins (10-6) making the playoffs out of the NFC East, with the Cowboys (9-7) just missing that goal following a late-season collapse, and the Eagles (6-10) starting strong but crumbling under the weight of the Terrell Owens saga and the injured status of Donovan McNabb.
An objective observer could make the case that all four will be stronger in 2006.

The defending division-champion Giants figure to improve offensively as Eli Manning continues to mature, and have added wideout Sinorice Moss via the draft to assist him on that side of the ball. On defense, Tom Coughlin has overhauled his deficient secondary in the offseason, and will blend LaVar Arrington into a group of linebackers that led to the club's downfall after Antonio Pierce got hurt last season.

In Washington, where the Redskins were a C-plus performance in Seattle away from a spot in the NFC Championship, the addition of wideouts Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd gives Mark Brunell and new coordinator Al Saunders two more much-needed offensive playmakers on a unit that struggled at times to complement Gregg Williams' defense.

Dallas made the biggest offseason splash in the league by signing Owens to give the offense the No. 1 receiving threat it has lacked, and short-timer Bill Parcells didn't ignore the defense either. Linebackers Akin Ayodele, a free agent acquisition from Jacksonville, and Bobby Carpenter, a first-round draft choice out of Ohio State, will provide the defense the two big, run- stopping linebackers that have always been a major part of Parcells' blueprint for success.

Then there are those forgotten last-place Eagles, who will be some pundits' pick for fourth place in the division due to last year's ugly finish and the lack of a No. 1 receiver to replace Owens. Those folks might have forgotten that a healthy McNabb led the Birds to three straight NFC title games with people like Todd Pinkston and James Thrash comically offered up as the team's top wideouts, and might also be overlooking the effect that arguably the league's top 2006 draft will have on the complexion of the franchise.

On paper, the NFC East is shaping up to be the league's most formidable division in 2006, and it is reasonable to believe that the group will end up being historically strong.
Since the 2002 re-alignment to eight four-team divisions, four teams in one division have never finished with a winning record in the same season. But the achievement was actually in reach for the NFC East last year, when the Giants, Skins, and Cowboys all had winning marks, and the Eagles finished two games under .500. Had Philadelphia won three of the following four contests last season - Atlanta, Seattle, Denver, and/or Arizona - the whole division would have been on the north side of .500. And again, this division looks better from top to bottom, not worse.

During the Super Bowl era, there have been nine instances where four teams from the same division finished above .500 in the same year, most recently in the 2000 NFC Central. If they harbor Super Bowl aspirations, the current members of the NFC East might want to wish against that type of group-wide success, however. Of the 36 teams making up those nine strong divisions, none went on to win a Super Bowl, and only one - the 1997 Packers - even got to the big game.

On the plus side of history's statistical curve, as it applies to top-notch divisions, is this fact: since the 2002 re-alignment, the best division in terms of winning percentage was the 2002 NFC South, with an overall record of 37-26-1 (.586). That group yielded the Super Bowl Champion Buccaneers, suggesting that strong competition within the division may have helped Tampa Bay when it counted.

What ranks as the all-time best division in NFL history? Depends on your criteria. Best overall winning percentage? Most teams in the playoffs? Highest number of clubs going deep in the postseason? Do you rule out divisions that played in the era before the 16-game schedule took effect? Discount the strong divisions before the AFL-NFL merger? Dismiss the four-team groups and their comparatively fewer division rivalries?

Whatever the criteria or pecking order, the list below presents a jumping-off point in the great division debate, and provides a glimpse of the group-wide level of achievement that the NFC East could surpass as a unit in 2006. Our Top 10 focuses on the Super Bowl era only, with asterisks denoting playoff teams:

1. 1975 AFC Central

*Pittsburgh (12-2); *Cincinnati (11-3); Houston (10-4); Cleveland (3-11)

The winning percentage of the four members of the AFC Central was a gaudy .643 (36-20), the best combined mark for a division during the Super Bowl era to date. The quartet went 24-8 (.750) outside the division, and 22-2 (.917) when taking the lowly Browns out of that equation. The Steelers went onto beat the Cowboys in the Super Bowl, the Bengals also made the playoffs, and the hard- luck Oilers, in an era where only one wild card per conference made the field, were among the best teams in NFL history not to reach the postseason.

2. 1984 AFC West

*Denver (13-3); *Seattle (12-4); *L.A. Raiders (11-5); Kansas City (8-8); San Diego (7-9)

The only thing keeping this division out of the all-time No. 1 spot is the fact that none of the league's three playoff entries got past the AFC Divisional Round. Perhaps they were beaten up from facing each other during the regular season. Since the 16-game schedule was implemented in 1978, no division has had a better winning percentage than the '84 AFC West, which was a combined 51-29 (.638) and a lusty 31-9 (.775) outside of the division. The magic didn't last in the playoffs, however. The division champion Broncos were upset by the Steelers at home in John Elway's second career postseason game, and one week after beating the Raiders in the Wild Card round, the Seahawks got taken down by Dan Marino and the eventual AFC Champion Dolphins.

3. 1997 NFC Central

*Green Bay (13-3); *Tampa Bay (10-6); *Detroit (9-7); *Minnesota (9-7); Chicago (4-12)

The 2006 NFC East might end up being historically great, but the division will never pull off the same achievement as the '97 NFC Central, one of three divisions in history to send four participants to the playoffs in the same year. The four-division alignment and current two-Wild Card playoff structure makes it impossible for four teams from the same division to reach the postseason. That was not the case in '97, when the Packers won the Central and went onto the Super Bowl before being upset by the Broncos; the Buccaneers and Vikings joined Green Bay in the divisional round; and the Lions finished strong under Bobby Ross to make the playoffs for the final time during the Barry Sanders era. Sanders' playoff career ended with an 18-carry, 65-yard outing against the Bucs in a Wild Card round defeat.

4. 1985 AFC East

*Miami (12-4); *N.Y. Jets (11-5); *New England (11-5); Indianapolis (5-11); Buffalo (2-14)

The Colts and Bills were horrendous, but the top end of the '85 AFC East was very good and extremely contentious until the very end. The Dolphins, Patriots, and Jets all entered the second-to-last game of the season at 10-4, before Miami beat New England and the Jets lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Bears to help the Fins emerge with the division title. The trio would continue to display its strength while duking it out in the postseason. The Patriots upset the Jets at the Meadowlands in the Wild Card round, and after going to L.A. and downing the Raiders the following week, stunned Miami, 31-14, on the road in the AFC Championship. New England ran out of gas in the Super Bowl, where it was thrashed by Chicago, arguably the best team in NFL history.

5. 1991 NFC East

*Washington (14-2); *Dallas (11-5); Philadelphia (10-6); N.Y. Giants (8-8); Phoenix (4-12)

Since the schedule went to 16 games in 1978, no division that produced an eventual Super Bowl Champion has been stronger during the regular campaign than the 1991 NFC East, which went 47-33 (.588) overall and 27-13 (.675) outside of the division. 1991 was the year when the Redskins/Cowboys rivalry became worth watching again, as the first Joe Gibbs era in Washington was in its last throes of greatness, and Dallas had become a playoff team again under Jimmy Johnson. The Eagles were no slouch either, going 7-1 during the second half of the season and only missing the postseason when they lost to Dallas at home in Week 16. Mark Rypien and the Redskins would dispose of Buffalo in the Super Bowl, while the Cowboys would upset the Bears at Soldier Field before falling at Detroit in what remains the Lions' only postseason victory since 1957.

6. 2002 NFC South

*Tampa Bay (12-4); *Atlanta (9-6-1); New Orleans (9-7); Carolina (7-9)

Arguably the strongest division of the NFL's 32-team era, the '02 NFC South produced three better-than-.500 teams as well as John Fox's generally- competitive first Carolina club, which finished just under .500 and knocked the Saints out of the playoffs by defeating them on the season's final week. The division went a combined 37-26-1 (.586) during the regular season, 25-14-1 (.638) when removing division games from the equation, and yielded credible postseason participants in the Buccaneers and Falcons. Tampa Bay steamrolled through the playoffs en route to its first-ever Super Bowl title, and Atlanta routed Green Bay in the NFC Wild Card round at Lambeau Field, the first-ever postseason loss for the Packers at the facility, before falling to the Eagles in the Divisional round.

7. 1998 AFC East

*N.Y. Jets (12-4); *Buffalo (10-6); *Miami (10-6); *New England (9-7); Indianapolis (3-13)

Unless the NFL expands the playoff field, the 1998 AFC East will go down as the last division to send four teams to the postseason in the same year. The group had four winning teams and went a combined 49-31 (.613), 29-11 (.725) outside of the division, the second-best marks of the 16-game era behind only the 1984 AFC West (see #2). The Jets were at the height of their powers under Bill Parcells, going to the AFC Championship before losing to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Broncos, the Dolphins fell in the Divisional round to the same Denver team, and the Doug Flutie-led Bills and Pete Carroll-coached Patriots also qualified for the postseason field. The balance of power in the division was about to shift drastically, as a rookie named Peyton Manning would bounce back from a tough year to lead the Colts up the ladder in 99, and in two years' time, one Bill Belichick would take the helm in New England.

8. 1990 NFC East

*N.Y. Giants (13-3); *Washington (10-6); *Philadelphia (10-6); Dallas (7-9); Phoenix (5-11)

One year before the Redskins stormed through the NFC East en route to a Super Bowl title (see #5), Bill Parcells' final Giants team kept the pace in a division that yielded three playoff entries and nearly produced a fourth. Washington and Philadelphia each managed 10 wins en route to Wild Card spots, with Buddy Ryan's Eagles ending the G-Men's hopes of a perfect season with a 31-13 win in Week 12. Jimmy Johnson's second Cowboys team was 7-7 and controlled its playoff fate entering the season's final two weeks, but lost road games against the Eagles and Falcons to surrender the final postseason slot to the 8-8 Saints and deny the division a fourth playoff berth. The Giants would eventually win their second world title after edging the 49ers and Bills in the NFC Championship and Super Bowl, respectively, and the Redskins would win at Philadelphia in the Wild Card round before losing to San Francisco in the Divisional round.

9. 1994 NFC Central

*Minnesota (10-6); *Chicago (9-7); *Detroit (9-7); *Green Bay (9-7); Tampa Bay (6-10)

The first of three times that four teams from the same division would make the postseason field in the same season (see #3, #7), the 1994 NFC Central didn't have a standout team, but had four pretty good ones. The Vikings and Bears were at the forefront of the race, with Dave Wannstedt's Chicago club losing three of its final four to open the door for Minnesota to take the division. The Bears would erase that indignity by beating the Vikings in the Metrodome in the Wild Card round, a game that continues to rank as the franchise's most recent postseason victory. Both the Lions and Packers started the year 2-4 before picking up the pace down the stretch, and Green Bay would go on to beat Detroit in the Wild Card round before being edged by Dallas in the Divisional Playoff.

10. 1969 AFL West

*Oakland (12-1-1); *Kansas City (11-3); San Diego (8-6); Denver (5-8-1); Cincinnati (4-9-1)

A major asterisk is required here, since 1969 was the final season before the AFL-NFL merger and the members of the younger league did not face the NFL clubs, which were perceived to be stronger at that time. Thus, the fact that the 1969 AFL West was a combined 40-27-3 (.593) overall and 20-7-3 (.717) outside of their division during the regular season rings somewhat hollow. However, hints of the division's strength are borne out by what happened in the playoffs. The John Madden-coached Raiders destroyed the Oilers (56-7) in the Divisional round before the Chiefs, who had defeated the defending world champion Jets the week before, upset Oakland (17-7) to advance to Super Bowl IV. Once there, Kansas City humbled NFL champ Minnesota (23-7), again helping to dismiss the notion that the AFL was the inferior of the two leagues.

05/18 14:21:17 ET
"He can run like Jerry Rice and hit like Night Train Lane" 21
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