PHILADELPHIA – The Eagles return from their bye week with clear directions to the NFC East title scrolling on their smartphones. It is a road, as expected, that leads through Dallas.
But wait. What is this little shortcut? Hard to believe, but that assumption the Eagles absolutely had to win the division to reach the postseason is no longer valid. After sitting out the weekend’s action, they are suddenly viable in the NFC wild-card picture as well.
That may be moot. To win enough games to edge out San Francisco or Arizona for a wild-card would probably mean winning enough to finish ahead of Dallas in the division. But if the Cowboys suddenly got hot coming off their big road win over the Giants Sunday, the Eagles could find an alternate route to the postseason.
The only division leader who appears safe is Seattle, at 10-1 in the NFC West. Two NFC South teams, New Orleans (9-2) and Carolina (8-3) appear headed for the playoffs, one as division winter and one as a wild card.
But who is the second wild card? Arizona (7-4) and San Francisco (6-4 going into its Monday night game at Washington) from the West appear to be in the best position.
But the Eagles host the Cardinals Sunday. A win would give them the same 7-5 record and the tie-breaker advantage over Arizona. The Eagles then play three consecutive games against NFC North opponents: Detroit at home, at Minnesota and Chicago at home.
Aside from making a lie of the NFL principle of scheduling mostly division games near the end of the season, that gives the Eagles an excellent opportunity to gain the edge on Detroit and Chicago, who are both 6-5.
Whichever playoff berth is at stake, the Eagles need to take advantage of having three homes games against NFC contenders (plus a road game against a floundering Vikings team). They may need to finish with a better record than the Cowboys to win the division title. A tie may not be enough, even if the Eagles beat Dallas Dec. 29
That’s because the Cowboys’ win over the Giants gave them a 4-0 record within the NFC East. If Dallas beats Washington in Week 16, the Cowboys would have the tie-breaker advantage if they and the Eagles finish, say, 9-7 and split their head-to-head matchups.
All season, it has been easy to make fun of the NFC East. The Giants lost their first six games and could have gotten back into the division race with a win Sunday. There’s a chance a .500 record could win the division. Because of that, the assumption grew that no NFC East team had a chance at a wild card.
But with Arizona next on their schedule and the NFC North teams they face stumbling, the Eagles could create a second route to the playoffs.