ASHBURN, Va. (AP) -Welcome to the NFC East, where everyone's a winner!
Yet those Dallas Cowboys look so glum. What are they doing in last place, anyway? And weren't the New York Giants supposed to be a one-hit wonder?
The preseason pundits did get one thing right: This is easily the best division in the NFL. Everyone is still in the playoff hunt in November, and the four teams are a combined 18-6 against out-of-division opponents.
Romo.
The statement game of the year to date was the Giants' 35-14 rout of the Cowboys on Sunday, yet New York coach Tom Coughlin was so unimpressed that he made his players come into work on Monday instead of rewarding them with the usual day off.
The NFC East sent three teams to the playoffs last year. The odds look favorable for the same to happen again, but good luck trying to figure out which one will be left behind.
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New York Giants (7-1)
The Giants were a prime candidate for a Super Bowl letdown, but they instead came out determined to prove that last year's title team was anything but a flash in the pan. It helps that Coughlin didn't loosen the reins - at least if token bad boy Plaxico Burress' accumulation of fines is any indication.
A defense that was supposedly wrecked by the retirement of Michael Strahan and a season-ending knee injury to Osi Umenyiora is ranked No. 1 in the NFC. That more than compensates for the ups and downs of Eli Manning, whose performance against the Cowboys seemed to fit his M.O.: three touchdown passes, two lost fumbles and an interception returned for a touchdown.
The Giants haven't exactly been cruising through the schedule. Their clunkers include a three-touchdown loss to Cleveland and an overtime win over woeful Cincinnati.
e rest of the way: Every opponent through the end of the season has at least a .500 record.
Still, 7-1 in this division is quite impressive.
Grade: A
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Washington Redskins (6-3)
Jim Zorn is wasting his grace period. The rookie coach, who had never been so much as a coordinator in the NFL, was supposed to take his lumps working his way through a tough schedule in his first season.
Instead, Zorn's go-get-'em optimism and sheer likability has made him one of the feel-good stories of the league. He took it on the chin in the season-opening loss to the Giants, but road wins over Dallas and Philadelphia made Washington a player in the division.
Every win has been by eight points or fewer, which means the Redskins are either exceptionally lucky or exceptional under pressure. Zorn, installing a pass-first offense, can hardly believe he has the league's leading rusher (Clinton Portis), or that Jason Campbell waited until Week 9 to throw an interception, or that the defense is playing very well despite significant injuries to Jason Taylor and Shawn Springs.
Monday night's 23-6 loss to Pittsburgh exposed some vulnerabilities, but the second-half schedule is favorable. More cheers of ``Hip! Hip! Hooray!'' are on the horizon.
Grade: B-plus
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Philadelphia Eagles (5-3)
really matters is whether Donovan McNabb is healthy, right?
Well, McNabb is finally healthy, all the way back from knee surgery. He's more mobile, has more confidence in his reconstructed joint and can again buy time and find open receivers. He's thrown only four interceptions all season.
As a result, the Eagles are again legit. They've won three straight, all by at least 13 points. Their three losses have been by a combined 14 points, the result of struggles in short-yardage situations and an atypical 2-for-6 performance from David Akers on field goal attempts beyond 40 yards.
Rookie receiver DeSean Jackson has been a spark plug, although RB Brian Westbrook (422 yards rushing in eight games) is not his old self because of injuries. The defense already has 15 takeways after getting just 19 all of last year.
Alas, the Eagles still have to face the Giants twice. Conversely, they're only the NFC East team that has yet to play either Cincinnati or Cleveland, a pair of gifts in a season in which the division's schedule gives everyone a shot at the two weaklings of the NFC North.
Grade: B-minus.
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Dallas Cowboys (5-4)
The NFL's best soap opera is fine entertainment for everyone except those having to live through it. Adam ``Pacman'' Jones' No. 1 accomplishment? Making Terrell Owens look tame by comparison.
Owner Jerry Jones' mix of egos and expectations has swooned to a 2-4 slump after a 3-0 start. The team that returned 13 Pro Bowl players from a 13-win team looks more like a 13-ring circus. There's already talk how much patience Jones will have with coach Wade Phillips.
Certainly, injuries have played their part. The Cowboys were scoring at least 24 points per game until Romo broke his pinkie; they weren't able to top even 14 points in the three games he's missed. Romo, running back Felix Jones, left guard Kyle Kosier and cornerback Terence Newman are all expected to return after this week's bye.
But it would be a mistake to think of Romo as the cure-all. The slide started while he was still healthy. The offense has had trouble running, throwing and blocking. The defense isn't getting many stops or creating many turnovers. The special teams lost the punter to a broken foot and is now searching for a new holder, too.
The season could hinge on the visit to Washington after the bye. If the Cowboys win that one, they'll at least salvage some reasonable hope of earning a wild-card berth. If they lose, things could really get ugly.
Grade: D.

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