New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys battle to the wire in humble NFC East race

The New York Giants, who take a 7-6 record into Sunday’s game at MetLife Stadium against the Washington Redskins, have won once since Nov. 6. In the glory days of the NFC East, that would have made them an afterthought entering the NFL season stretch run. This season, it makes them a division leader.

The NFC East once was the division of Super Bowl powerhouses. In a 14-year stretch between the 1982 and ’95 seasons, teams in the division won eight Super Bowl titles — three each by the Redskins and Dallas Cowboys and two by the Giants. NFC East clubs had four straight Super Bowl triumphs between the ’90 and ’93 seasons.

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But such dominance is a rapidly fading memory. The Giants’ title in the 2007 season is the lone Super Bowl victory for an NFC East team in the past 15 years. That drought seems likely to continue this season, with the Giants and Cowboys tied for first place at a modest one game above .500 with three games left. The division’s two top contenders have obvious deficiencies.

“I think both of these teams have flaws in the secondary,” Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Redskins and Houston Texans, said Tuesday. “So both of them are going to give up yards and they’re going to give up points.”

Only one other division in the NFL, the AFC West, has a leader with fewer than 10 victories. In that division, the Denver Broncos are in first place at 8-5. The NFC East’s teams have combined for 23 wins this season, fewer than the total for any other division except the AFC South, whose teams have 21 wins.

With the Giants and Cowboys scheduled to play each other again, the NFC East is not in jeopardy of sinking to the level of last season’s NFC West, which the Seattle Seahawks captured with a 7-9 record to become the NFL’s first playoff team with a losing record.

But it has reached the point that the disappointing Philadelphia Eagles (5-8) still could win the division.

Even so, Casserly said he’s not yet ready to declare this season a low point for the NFC East. The offensive capabilities of the Giants and Cowboys make each of them a threat, he said, to finish with a flourish.

“They’re both explosive offensively,” Casserly said. “The Giants came within one possession of beating Green Bay. I think Dallas could do the same thing. Whatever team gets in [the playoffs] will have a chance to beat someone. One of those teams could still be 10-6. No one would say anything about that. Let’s let the last three games play out and see how it goes.”

The division is not lacking in drama or football entertainment. Both were abundant Sunday night in Arlington, Tex., when the Giants erased a 12-point deficit in the game’s final six minutes and beat the Cowboys, 37-34.

The Cowboys had the division title all but wrapped up when they led, 34-22, after quarterback Tony Romo’s 50-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Dez Bryant. But it all unraveled from there. Giants quarterback Eli Manning led his team to two late touchdowns, with a two-point conversion on the second. And the Giants blocked a 49-yard field goal attempt by Cowboys rookie Dan Bailey with one second left.

The Giants emerged feeling good about themselves, with a gritty victory a week after they pushed the unbeaten Packers to the limit before losing on a field goal as time expired. The Cowboys were left to cope with another difficult loss on the heels of an overtime defeat in Arizona in which Coach Jason Garrett’s late-game clock management was criticized by many NFL analysts.

“This is a tough loss,” Romo said late Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium. “It was an important game and guys laid it on the line. It’s tough to just not come out with a victory. We’ve got to regroup and get ready to go because we’ve got a big one next week.”

The Cowboys play Saturday night in Tampa before finishing the season with two NFC East games — at home against the Eagles and against the Giants at the Meadowlands. Dallas must play the remainder of the season without DeMarco Murray, their highly productive rookie running back, who set a single-game team rushing record with 253 yards in October. Murray suffered a fractured ankle Sunday night.

The Giants finish the regular season with three straight games at MetLife Stadium, although their Dec. 24 meeting with the New York Jets technically is a road game.

“Last month was very rough,” Giants safety Antrel Rolle said after Sunday’s game. “But last month was last month.”

Manning, who threw for 400 yards against the Cowboys, is having a superb season that has been overshadowed by the more celebrated exploits of quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers of the Packers, Drew Brees of New Orleans and Tom Brady of New England. All four are on pace to surpass 5,000 passing yards this season. There have been only two 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history, by Dan Marino for Miami in 1984 and by Brees for the Saints in 2008.

Manning’s passing display Sunday got the Giants back into the win column after they followed a 6-2 start with losses to the San Francisco 49ers, Eagles, Saints and Packers.

“I can never remember a season like this where every game — not every game, but almost every game — is right to the wire,” Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said Sunday night. “I was just happy because we needed to have a locker-room celebration. We’ve been starving for that.”

 
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