MIAMI (Reuters) - The NFC East is a division rich in history and prestige, with a collective 12 Super Bowls won by its teams, and this season it is certainly living up to high expectations.
With two regular season games remaining, the New York Giants, defending Super Bowl champions, share a three-way tie at the top of the division with the resurgent Washington Redskins and an increasingly impressive Dallas Cowboys.
The Philadelphia Eagles, the only team in the division not to have won a Super Bowl (although they have three NFL titles from the pre-Super Bowl era), have had a season to forget (4-10) but their trio of rivals are producing a truly grand finale.
As it stands the Redskins, a franchise transformed by the drafting of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, lead the division by owning the tie-breaks.
A run of five straight wins for the ‘Skins continued in unlikely fashion on Sunday with a 38-21 win at Cleveland despite the absence of the injured Griffin.
Without ‘RG3’, Washington had to hand another rookie, Kirk Cousins, his very first start in the professional game but he responded in sterling fashion.
The numbers tell an impressive enough story - Cousins, picked 100 places below Griffin in the 2012 draft, threw for 329 yards and two scores in his debut start.
But Cousins showed his character too, recovering from a very shaky start to lead his time to victory.
He completed just one of his first six passes for four yards, while throwing his third interception in 14 career passes and taking a sack.
“He has got a lot of confidence and you can see that in practice,” Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan said.
“He knew it was a challenge and I thought he stepped up and just got more comfortable as the game went on.”
Griffin’s knee injury is expected to have healed enough for him to return against the Eagles next week as the Redskins seek the first of two victories that would secure them a place in the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Thanks to a superior division record compared to the Giants and a head-to-head victory over the Cowboys, Washington holds the tie breakers over both teams for the division title that they last won in 1999.
Washington is also tied with the Chicago Bears and the Minnesota Vikings for an NFC Wild Card spot but that will be irrelevant if they take care of divisional business - against the Eagles next week and then, a potential de facto ‘play in’ with the Cowboys.
“Scenarios aside, if we win, we’re in the playoffs,” said veteran safety Reed Doughty.
“It’s a great place to be. There’s a lot of teams looking at, ‘OK, if they lose, and then we win...’ No, if we win, we’re in the playoffs. To get the chance at a home playoff game? D.C. needs that, and it’s exciting,” he said.
The Cowboys are firmly in the chase, second in the tie-breakers, thanks to a third win in a row - this one with a little overtime drama.
Brandon Carr intercepted a pass from Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and returned it 36 yards, a yard short of the end-zone, to set up a game-winning 21-yard field goal from Dan Bailey as they triumphed 27-24.
The Cowboys have found consistency and the ability to grind out wins at just the right stage in the season although they have a tricky game at home to the New Orleans Saints next week.
While the Saints are out of the playoff picture, their quarterback Drew Brees showed his class with four touchdown passes in a 41-0 crushing of Tampa on Sunday.
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett does not want his players even thinking about scenarios.
“A tie in the division after 14 games means nothing,” he said.
“We have the New Orleans Saints coming here next week. What we have to do is get better and learn from this ballgame.”
But the team with the most learning to do from Sunday is the Giants - their offense was shutout for the first time since 1996 and their defense was ripped open by a rampant Atlanta in a 34-0 loss.
The result was the worst shutout defeat ever suffered by a defending Super Bowl champion and the fourth worst loss in Tom Coughlin’s 17-year, NFL head-coaching career which spans 270 regular season games.
The Giants are at Baltimore next, who have already booked a playoff place, before hosting the Eagles.
“We have two games to play. There is a lot of fire and a lot of character in that locker room,” said Coughlin.
“We have to come back from a devastating loss and shake it off somehow, someway.”
Reporting By Simon Evans