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Unpredictable NFC East still undecided heading into Week 17

If there is a moral to the NFC East story in 2020, it is that virtually nothing is impossible. Consider:

  • You can be the New York Giants and score only three touchdowns in your first four games, lose five straight and seven of eight to open the year, currently be mired in a three-game skid, yet still be in contention for the division title entering the final week of the season.
  • You can be the Dallas Cowboys and drop seven of your first nine games and have a defense that statistically ranks as one of the worst in league history, surrendering 34 points or more in five consecutive games at one point, yet still be in the running for the division crown in the final week of the season.
  • You can even be the Washington Football Team and lose seven of eight after a successful Week 1, bench your starting quarterback after four games, go through two more starting QBs because of injuries, and now possibly be turning to a fourth starter, who, earlier this month, was out of football and taking online final exams at Old Dominion University yet still be in a position to win the division title in the final week.

Seems fitting that after watching the four teams in the NFC East combine to play 60 games, take more than 3,800 snaps on both offense and defense, and score just over 1,200 points while surrendering slightly more than 1,500, we still would have no idea how the final division standings will shake out. Three things we do know, however: Only the Eagles have been eliminated from contention; the eventual winner will have a losing record; and only Washington has a grip on the steering wheel when it comes to controlling its future.

Washington (6-9) can clinch the division and its automatic playoff berth with a win over Philadelphia (4-10-1) in Week 17. Should it fail, the Cowboys-Giants winner would claim the division and the postseason berth.

At this point, no one seems to want either. Washington could have locked up both with a win Sunday, but was completely outplayed in a 20-13 loss to Carolina, which had lost eight of nine. The offense was so bad that QB Dwayne Haskins was benched in the fourth quarter for Taylor Heinicke, a COVID-19 protection signing who had not played in nearly a year and a half and had last attempted an NFL pass in 2018.

Coach Ron Rivera turned to Heinicke with just over nine minutes to play because the offense had no life under Haskins, who threw two interceptions, lost a fumble and completed just 14 of 28 passes for 154 yards. Rivera considered making the change after halftime, but wanted to see if Haskins could find a rhythm, as he had done the previous week, when, after a slow start, he led two touchdown drives and threw for 170 yards in the fourth quarter of a loss to Seattle.

Haskins acknowledged during the week that Sunday would likely be his last chance to stick with the team beyond this year, particularly after being photographed maskless at a birthday party for his girlfriend. His benching against the Panthers would appear to remove any doubt.

The hope in Washington is that Alex Smith will be healthy enough to play in the finale after missing the past two games with a strained calf. Rivera said the team held out hope as late as Friday, but on Saturday morning Smith "wasn't feeling it," according to Rivera.

The chances of returning to Haskins if Smith is unavailable would seem to be slim to none, with slim having left the stadium. Rivera appeared to signal on the postgame virtual call that his patience has run out. Conversely, he used words and phrases like "gutsy … outstanding … great vision … gave us a chance to win" when discussing Heinicke.

(UPDATE: Washington released Haskins on Monday; in a statement, Rivera said he told Haskins he believes "it benefits both parties that we go our separate ways.")

Meantime, the Eagles likely feel good about their QB situation with rookie Jalen Hurts, who has played well since replacing starter Carson Wentz several weeks ago. His ability to make plays has breathed life back into the franchise, so much so that Philadelphia could have set up a winner-take-all game against Washington had it beaten Dallas on Sunday. However, it squandered an early 11-point lead and lost, 37-17.

The best the Eagles can do now is play spoiler, although Hurts is still seeking to lock up front-runner status for the starting job in 2021 after throwing for 342 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 69 yards against the Cowboys, although his three turnovers were an issue.

Dallas (6-9) has won three in a row after failing to post consecutive wins in the first three months of the season. Each has come against a backup quarterback -- although Hurts was a significant upgrade over Wentz -- and while that won't be the case on Sunday against the Giants (5-10), barring an unforeseen setback with Daniel Jones, the Cowboys will be matched against an offense that has not scored more than 19 points in its last five games and has a total of just five touchdowns during that period.

But if we've learned one thing this season, it's to expect the unexpected in the NFC East. Mercifully, though, the spinning top will come to a stop next weekend.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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