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Power outage in NFC East could lead to frantic finish

Don't be fooled by the competitive closeness of the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, and Philadelphia Eagles.

It doesn't mean that the NFC East is the NFL's best division or even one of the best.

Granted, it's the only division in the league with three teams above .500. But that doesn't mean that they're elite clubs or should even be in that conversation.

Martz: Cowboys on top

Right now, Dallas is the best team in the NFC East, and I think they'll win the division.

Defensively, the Cowboys have improved every week. They pressure the quarterback, have played well against the run and are getting the opposing offense off the field.

On offense, the Cowboys have struggled on third downs the last several weeks. If they can get that resolved, they'll be fine.

There isn't a personnel issue on the Cowboys roster, while the Giants and Eagles have some weaknesses in different areas. It's a strong team. They just need to play better.

-- Mike Martz

They aren't. The best example took place last Sunday in Dallas, where the NFC East-leading Cowboys barely got by the worst team in their division and one of the worst in the league, the Washington Redskins, 7-6.

It's fair to say that you can find clubs better than any of the top three in the NFC East among the leaders of the NFC South (10-0 New Orleans), NFC North (9-1 Minnesota), and even the NFC West (7-3 Arizona). The Giants have lost to two of those clubs, the Saints and Cardinals. The Giants and Eagles each gave up 48 points in lopsided losses to New Orleans.

It's also fair to say that you can find superior teams among the AFC division leaders (7-3 New England in the East, 7-3 Cincinnati in the North, 10-0 Indianapolis in the South, and 7-3 San Diego in the West), and perhaps others above .500 in that conference. The Chargers already have knocked off the Giants and Eagles. The Eagles have also lost to the Oakland Raiders, while the Cowboys lost to Denver.

The flaws of the NFC East teams are many, and figure to keep one or more of them from doing a whole lot in the postseason. Before they get there, of course, they need to determine a winner of the division -- which is anyone's guess at this point -- and which, if any, of the rest of the top three earns a wild-card spot. Fittingly, the NFL schedule has the teams settling most of those issues with games against each other down the stretch.

Here's a closer look at each of the top three contenders to win the NFC East:

Dallas Cowboys (7-3)

Biggest problem: No offense. After producing 26 or more points in five of the first eight games, the Cowboys' offense has generated a mere touchdown in each of the last two weeks and scored only twice in its last 22 possessions. Tony Romo flirts with being a big-time quarterback, but too often takes backward steps. His two best receivers, Miles Austin and Roy Williams, are struggling to get off the line of scrimmage and shake free from coverage. The Cowboys looked downright horrible through most of last Sunday's game against the Redskins. That they had to rally to win the game is an indication of their lack of worthiness as a division leader.

Greatest hope: The defense can carry the load, although that could be asking a lot with so little help from the other side of the ball.

Rest of the way: The Cowboys face the Raiders in their annual Thanksgiving Day game. It has the makings of a classic get-well opportunity, although as the Raiders demonstrated against the Eagles and Bengals, they're very capable of being a spoiler. The good news for the Cowboys is that it's still November, because they haven't had a winning record through December and January since 1996. After Turkey Day, most of their remaining games are against divisional opponents (Dec. 6, at the Giants; Dec. 27, at Washington, and Jan. 3, against Philadelphia). The two other games look like trouble: Dec. 13 against San Diego and Dec. 19 against New Orleans.

N.Y. Giants (6-4)

Giants-Broncos live
NFL Network will broadcast the Giants- Broncos game live from Invesco Field in Denver at 8 p.m. ET Thursday.

Biggest problem: No defense. It seems strange to say that, given that the Giants have the second-ranked defense in the league. But after a 5-0 start, they lost four games in a row because they gave up too many big plays through the air and, incredibly, their once-vaunted pass rush could do nothing to help an ailing secondary. The Giants finally snapped their losing streak last Sunday. However, they had to go to overtime to beat the Atlanta Falcons, because, once again, their defense collapsed.

Greatest hope:Eli Manning. The Giants must pray that he continues to have the hot hand he displayed against the Falcons. They only won that game because he was able to torch an Atlanta secondary that has struggled against top quarterbacks. Manning seems to have regained the form and the confidence he had when looking like an MVP candidate through the first five weeks of the season. A solid running game can take pressure off of him, but asking him to repeatedly lead rallies because the defense can't stop anyone late in games is hardly a formula for success.

Rest of the way: The Giants help close out the Thanksgiving Day triple-header at Denver (8 p.m. ET, NFL Network). They seem to be catching the Broncos, who have lost four in a row after a 6-0 start, at the perfect time. The Broncos put up almost no fight against the Chargers last Sunday. Their defense no longer is generating great pressure, which should give Manning ample opportunity to make plays, and their quarterback situation is a mess with Kyle Orton hurting and Chris Simms looking incapable of picking up the slack. After Denver, the Giants have three consecutive NFC East games: Dec. 6 against Dallas, Dec. 13 against Philadelphia and Dec. 21 at Washington. Carolina isn't necessarily a gimme on Dec. 27, and the Giants could be in for a very long day if the Vikings are playing for home-field advantage when the teams meet at Minnesota on Jan. 3.

Philadelphia (6-4)

Biggest problem: No Brian Westbrook. The Eagles will miss the spark, versatility and leadership of the veteran running back, who is out with a concussion. Inconsistency is another concern. After back-to-back lopsided victories against Kansas City and Tampa Bay, the Eagles inexplicably suffered a loss at Oakland. And that was before the Raiders replaced quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who threw two interceptions against Philly, with Bruce Gradkowski.

Greatest hope: Quick-striking offense with multiple game-breakers. Even without Westbrook, the Eagles have some excellent weapons in DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy. Donovan McNabb remains a top-level quarterback and a strong leader. Michael Vick is slowly moving into a situational threat that could become bigger as he continues to gain more comfort and familiarity with the scheme. The Eagles also have a top-10 defense that can force big plays. Andy Reid and his staff are outstanding coaches, who have successfully negotiated these stretch runs many times before.

Rest of the way: The Eagles close out their season series with the Redskins on Sunday. They won the first matchup, 27-17, at Washington, and even though the Redskins have been a disaster with coach Jim Zorn having play-calling duties stripped away and with mounting injuries, there is no assurance of the rematch being an easy victory. The Redskins are still playing tough defense. But if the Eagles have as legitimate a shot as they appear to have to win the division, they absolutely must win this game. The rest of the schedule doesn't look terribly daunting: Dec. 6 at Atlanta, Dec. 13 at the Giants, Dec. 20 against San Francisco, Dec. 27 against Denver, and Jan. 3 at Dallas … with the division title quite possibly on the line.

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