NFC East not so super? NFL: The home of smash-mouth football isn't as strong as it used to be, but don't tell that to the teams in the division that has dominated the league this decade.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Still feisty after all these stretch runs, New York Giants general manager George Young will make no concessions when it comes to the NFC East's long-held supremacy.

Forget Green Bay's Super Bowl victory last January. Disregard the three teams tied for first place in the top-heavy NFC Central at 8-3. While many would argue that the NFC Central is the NFL's best division this season, Young is in no rush to join the crowd.

"I won't concede it," he said this week. "Let the season play out."

Understandably, Young has his reasons. His overachieving Giants hook up with the Washington Redskins on Sunday night in another of those prime-time, smash-mouth, NFC East confrontations. First place is on the line. Playoff implications are rife.

Play out the season, they will.

But what seems clear, 12 weeks in, is that the NFC East isn't what it used to be.

The division that has won five of the past seven Super Bowls -- and seven of the past 11 -- is watered down by the free-agent system, young quarterbacks and new coaches.

Four teams in the East could be characterized as underachievers. Only the 7-4, first-place Giants have played above expectations -- far above, in fact. Even then, the Giants' record is buoyed by a fifth-place schedule. Their first 11 opponents are collective 45-74-2. Their last five opponents are 30-24-1, the toughest finishing schedule in the division.

Were it not for a decline by the Dallas Cowboys, whose three Super Bowl victories in the past five years should make them team of the decade, the NFC East slippage might be obscured. But with five conference losses and four division losses already, the Cowboys (6-5) must further jeopardize their playoff chances in a risky trip to Green Bay on Sunday.

Indeed, it has become a dog-eat-dog world in the NFC East -- if not the entire league -- this season. The Arizona Cardinals, who have been immune to the division's dominating run, have only two wins, but they came at the expense of the Cowboys and the once-feared Philadelphia Eagles.

"We've gotten bunched together," Young said of his division foes. "Even Arizona is going to bother people, and the Eagles. You can't stay up too long. It doesn't matter what the system.

"Dallas still has the quarterback, the running back, the receiver. They're just not as consistent as they were. To get three Super Bowls out of a team is great. It goes in cycles."

There are serious signs that the NFC East is in a downward cycle. The five division teams are a combined 5-23-1 on the road and only 4-9-1 against the AFC this season.

None of the three playoff contenders ranks in the league's top 10 in rush offense, pass offense or total offense. (Defense is still what drives the NFC East: the Giants are third in rush defense, the Redskins fourth in pass defense and the Cowboys second in total defense.)

At 6-5, the Redskins can gain a piece of first place by beating the Giants at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. Their last five opponents have a combined record of 22-32-1, which is the easiest finishing schedule in the division.

Four of those five games are against division teams.

"I think it's a pretty clear story," said Redskins general manager Charley Casserly. "One game separates three teams and there's five games to go. The Giants have to play us twice, they have to play Dallas. There are a lot of division games left. The good news is, each team controls its own destiny."

Casserly does not buy into the fall of the NFC East.

"It's interesting," he said. "Everyone talks about how our division isn't any good. I think our division is good. There isn't a team in the league, outside our division, who would want to go to Dallas to play a playoff game. We have to go there every year; we're used to it.

"Green Bay, San Francisco, those teams wouldn't be excited about going to Dallas for a playoff game."

Casserly also believes the Dallas-is-dead scenario to be half-baked. After this weekend's trip to Green Bay, the Cowboys get cozy home games against the Tennessee Oilers on Thanksgiving and the Carolina Panthers 10 days later on a Monday night. They finish with Cincinnati away and the Giants at home.

"I think people overreact to everything they do," Casserly said of the Cowboys. "My feeling was, the meat of their schedule was in the middle of the season. I thought if they came out of it with a chance to be close going into the last four games of the year they have a great home-field advantage Thanksgiving and the game after Thanksgiving."

Cowboys coach Barry Switzer doesn't disagree. He's still plotting ways for Dallas to win its sixth straight division title.

"This is the time of year championships are won," he said. "If we can win Sunday, it gives us a good chance because three of our last four games are at home. In the 1990s, in all our games after Nov. 15, we have a 25-3 record at home."

In their fast-changing division, the Cowboys hold a sizable edge in experience. With quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin, they retain the key skill-position components from their Super Bowl seasons. Their defense remains the team strength.

In comparison, the Giants have a quarterback, Danny Kanell, who has started just five games in the NFL and is in his second year. The Redskins have a quarterback, Gus Frerotte, who has made 42 starts but is still struggling in his fourth season.

Out of the running, the Eagles have gone to second-year quarterback Bobby Hoying and the Cardinals to rookie Jake Plummer.

The turnover at the coaching level is noteworthy, too. Rookie Jim Fassel is Coach of the Year material for the Giants' turnaround from 6-10 a year ago. Arizona's Vince Tobin is in his second year, Philadelphia's Ray Rhodes in his third. Switzer and Washington's Norv Turner are co-deans of the division in their fourth years. Barring a Super Bowl appearance by the Cowboys, Switzer is expected to be gone next season.

Turner is seeking his first playoff berth. The Redskins haven't gone to the postseason tournament since former coach Joe Gibbs took them in 1992.

"Do I like our position? It's in our hands," Casserly said. "That's all you can ask at this time of year."

The look of youth

The NFC East starts two second-year quarterbacks and a rookie heading into the stretch run. Only the Dallas Cowboys' Troy Aikman has played more than five years.

Quarterback, Sea., Starts*, W-L, '97 pct., TDs-Ints, Skinny

Danny Kanell, NYG, 2nd, 5, 4-1, 55.1%, 5-3, With Kanell, Giants play better all around

Troy Aikman, Dal., 9th, 124, 76-48, 57.4%, 14-6, Wise old head, keeps Cowboys competitive

Gus Frerotte, Was., 4th, 42, 19-23, 51.8%, 16-10, Redskins still rely on Terry Allen's running

Bobby Hoying, Phi., 2nd, 1, 0-0-1, 65.4%, 1-0, 3rd QB to start for Eagles this season

Jake Plummer, Ariz., 1st, 4, 1-3, 55.7%, 5-7, Bill Walsh has likened him to Joe Montana

* -- Regular-season starts

The NFC East in the '90s

Team, Record, Div. titles, Playoffs, Super Bowls

Cowboys, 95-43, Won last 5, 6 years in row, 3

Eagles, 72-56-1, 0, 4 times, 0

Giants, 69-59, 1 (1990), 2 times, 1

Redskins, 66-64, 1 (1991), 3 times, 1

Cardinals, 41-82, 0, None, 0

Postseason domination

Year Playoff teams, Combined playoff record, Super Bowl winner

1990, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, 4-2, N.Y. Giants

1991, Washington, Dallas, 4-1, Washington

1992, Dallas, Philadelphia, Washington, 5-2, Dallas

1993, Dallas, New York, 4-1, Dallas

1994, Dallas, 1-1, San Francisco

1995, Dallas, Philadelphia, 4-1, Dallas

1996, Dallas, Philadelphia, 1-2, Green Bay

Tot., 15 teams, 23-10, Five titles

Pub Date: 11/21/97

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