NFC East’s rise from ‘NFC Least’ turns divisional playoffs into a rivalry showcase

The Giants' Carter Coughlin chases Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) in Week 18.
The Giants’ Carter Coughlin chases Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) in Week 18. The NFC East teams will meet for the third time this season after Philadelphia swept the two regular-season games.
(Chris Szagola / Associated Press)

Not one of its four teams could muster a winning record two years ago.

Now, everywhere you turn there’s an NFC East team still alive.

The Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants are lending new meaning to the divisional round of the playoffs. It’s the first time since realignment in 2002 that three teams from the same division have gotten this far.

“We have a lot of good teams in our division,” first-year Giants coach Brian Daboll told reporters Wednesday. “A lot of talented players, good coaches. Teams that are here at this time of year are the teams that earn it.”

Not since 1997 have three teams from the same division reached the second round, and that was in the old NFC Central when Green Bay, Minnesota and Tampa Bay dominated the divisional round. The Packers reached to the Super Bowl that season before losing to Denver.


Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys overcame four missed extra-point attempts by Brett Maher in a 31-14 playoff victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Jan. 16, 2023

The current situation is a far cry from 2020 when the best the “NFC Least” could offer was 7-9 Washington, which won four fewer games than the next-closest division winner. That team was dispatched by Tampa Bay in the opening round.

As it stands, the only surviving NFC team not from the East is San Francisco, which plays host to Dallas in Sunday’s late game.

On the AFC side this weekend, Jacksonville plays Saturday at top-seeded Kansas City, and the Cincinnati plays at Buffalo on Sunday.

The top-seeded Eagles will play host to the Giants on Saturday night, a team Philadelphia swept in the regular season. In fact, the Giants had only one division win this season. They were likewise swept by the Cowboys and had a win and a tie against the Commanders.

The Giants finished the regular season 9-7-1, only their second winning season in a decade, and made the playoffs for the first time since 2016. Daboll, the former Buffalo offensive coordinator, is a leading Coach of the Year candidate in an especially strong field.

Brian Daboll has come up big as head coach of the New York Giants, including a wild-card playoff victory at Minnesota.
Brian Daboll has come up big as head coach of the New York Giants, including a wild-card playoff victory at Minnesota.
(Abbie Parr / Associated Press)

He employed some unusual coaching tactics this season, including stopping some meetings in the spring, handing team captains video-game controllers and having them square off in games of Madden, and testing the resolve of quarterback Daniel Jones by quietly tipping the defense what plays he was about to run.

The Giants will have their hands full Saturday. They have lost nine in a row at Philadelphia, and no one on their roster has experienced a road win over the Eagles.

This game will be a big test for Philadelphia quarterback Jalen Hurts, a leading Most Valuable Player candidate earlier this season, who sat out two games after suffering an injury to his throwing shoulder in a Dec. 18 game against Chicago.

Although Hurts returned to lead the Eagles to a win over the Giants in the regular-season finale, Philadelphia’s coaches were very conservative with him and made sure he didn’t run around the way he did when fully healthy. Hurts was 14-1 as a starter this season, throwing for 22 touchdowns and rushing for 13 more.

Hurts told reporters this week that he’s feeling good, and shrugged off the notion of potentially aggravating his shoulder injury.

Predicting the four winners in the NFL playoff divisional round and who will be advancing to the conference championship games.

Jan. 19, 2023

“It’s football,” said. “I’ve got a bounty on me every week I go out there on the field. Gonna go out there and just play my game. Whatever happens, happens.”


As it happens, that game between the Cowboys and 49ers is the only matchup in the postseason so far that isn’t a rematch from the regular season.

Each of the six wild-card games was a rematch, and the other three divisional matchups were on the regular-season schedule too — although the game between Buffalo and Cincinnati was halted in the first quarter after Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest.

The Cowboys are looking to reach the NFC title game for the first time since winning the Super Bowl in the 1995 season. They took a first step in that direction Monday night with a wild-card win at Tampa Bay, the first postseason road win for Dallas in nine tries.

San Francisco and Dallas will face each other in the playoffs for a record-tying ninth time, with the Cowboys winning five of the previous eight meetings.

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan smiles while speaking at a news conference.
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has fond memories of rivalry games against the Dallas Cowboys.
(Stephen Brashear / Associated Press)

The 49ers are riding an 11-game winning streak, their longest in 25 years.

San Francisco knocked Dallas out of the playoffs last season in the first round so, in a sense, this has the feel of a rematch.


“That’s how rivalries happen,” said 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, whose father, Mike, was a San Francisco assistant before going on to win two Super Bowls as Denver’s head coach.

“You guys [reporters] knew it from the ‘80s when it started out. I remember so much from my childhood from sixth grade to ninth grade, because I was here ‘92 to ‘94, so it was the biggest rivalry in football to me growing up.

“Then usually that goes away when you don’t meet in the playoffs a bunch and we had a big game last year, we have a big game this year, so the more you do that, the bigger it gets again.”