By Steve Silverman
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The NFC East has been the laughingstock of the NFL in recent years.
But after a tough stretch, the division that was once home to legendary coaches Tom Landry, Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells has come back to the form that many fans of a certain age remember well.
Heading into Week 12, the standings are rather extraordinary, as the Cowboys are on top with a 9-1 record, the Giants are two games back at 7-3, and the Redskins are just a half-game behind them at 6-3-1. The Eagles are in last place with a 5-5 record, and that would leave them tied for second in four other divisions.
The Cowboys have reeled off nine straight wins since the Giants beat them in the opening week of the season, and much of the credit has gone to the team’s two gold-dust twins, running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott.
Elliott has quickly given the Cowboys a sensational running attack, as he has already run for 1,102 yards and a remarkable 4.9 yards per carry. Prescott’s achievements may be even more impressive.
The numbers are there, as Prescott is completing 67.7 percent of his passes with an unheard of 17-to-2 TD-to-interception ratio. But Prescott’s nonstatistical contribution is even more impressive, as he has the demeanor of a 10-year veteran and has not shown any sign of nerves or panic at any time.
Prescott took over at quarterback after Tony Romo’s unfortunate preseason back injury, and the rookie has stepped into the role as if he were back at Mississippi State and teams like the Packers, Steelers and Ravens were lower-level Southeastern Conference teams.
Aside from those two rookies, the Cowboys have had sensational play from their offensive line, and the defense has overachieved. The Cowboys rank 13th in yards allowed, even though the defensive personnel is ordinary at best.
The Redskins are 6-1-1 in their last eight games, and they may have the best quarterback in the division in Kirk Cousins.
The former Michigan State signal-caller has grown into a sensational touch passer and seems to come through with big throws any time coach Jay Gruden needs a big play. Cousins is throwing for nearly 300 yards per game, and he also has 17 TD passes to a crew of receivers that includes Jamison Crowder, Pierre Garcon and tight end Jordan Reed.
Explosive DeSean Jackson is the X-factor, and he appears to be warming to the task. The running game was the province of Matt Jones early in the season and Rob Kelley at this point, and the Redskins are picking up sizable chunks of yardage on the ground.
The Redskins have a problem or two on defense, but the explosiveness of the offense has allowed them to outstrip those issues. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan has a team-high eight sacks, and the Redskins are a hard-hitting defense. But there is an overall lack of speed on that side of the ball that comes into play from time to time.
The Giants have reeled off six wins in a row, and unless the earth stops spinning on its axis, they will make it seven in a row Sunday when they go to winless Cleveland. (Perhaps just a bit of hyperbole there, but you get the point.)
Big Blue has shown tremendous improvement on defense after last year’s no-show as the 32nd-ranked unit in the league. They have gotten a tremendous effort from newcomers Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison and Janoris Jenkins, while Landon Collins comes up with a clutch interception every week.
A rise to the 16th spot in the rankings speaks well of the personnel and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
Head coach Ben McAdoo’s biggest contribution appears to be in his ability to handle end-of-game situations. The Giants were 1-8 in games decided by six or fewer points last year, and that figure has turned around to 6-1 this year.
McAdoo and quarterback Eli Manning have done it without a semblance of a strong running game, and that’s why some are pumping the brakes on the Giants. Manning is capable of lighting up the scoreboard thanks to Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard, but when Rashad Jennings leads the team with 340 rushing yards, that’s not a good sign.
As well as the Cowboys have played this year, there is still much left to prove. What the team has done through 10 games will not get them to the Super Bowl.
Even if they finish with the best record in the league or the conference, how will they measure up with the Seahawks in the postseason?
Will Prescott be able to trade clutch throws with Russell Wilson, Cousins or Manning when it matters most?
The Thanksgiving Day matchup between the Cowboys and Redskins will tell some of the story, and it may be difficult for the rookie quarterback to keep up despite all the success he has had to this point.
It should be the beginning of a memorable stretch run for the NFL’s best division.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy