It was the same situation last year with the New York Giants, Dallas and Philadelphia fighting it out. Now, RGIII and the Washington Redskins are in the mix while the Eagles try to play spoiler.
That scenario worked out nicely for the Giants in 2011. They won two straight do-or-die regular-season games, three more in the conference playoffs and then beat New England for the second time in five years in the Super Bowl.
Can they do it again?
"These are the circumstances you want to be in," two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning said. "You want to be fighting to make it in the playoffs and that's just football and you understand it's tough to make the playoffs. You've got to work. You've got to win games. You've got to win important games and this is a chance."
The Giants, Redskins and Cowboys each are 8-6 and control their playoff fate. Win and they're in — either as the division champion or a wild card. The Redskins clinch the East if they win out because they hold tiebreaker advantages.
"Every game we go into now we believe we can win and that has to be your mindset," coach Mike Shanahan said. "When you win close games, you expect it."
The Cowboys' division hopes came down to the final game at New York last year. The Giants won 31-14. Dallas could be in the same position this season, playing for first place in Week 17. Only difference is the game is at Washington.
"I think our football team has developed that mental toughness that no matter what's going on during the game, as bad as it may look or whatever, we get to that fourth quarter, we have a shot to win the game," quarterback Tony Romo said after an overtime win against Pittsburgh. "We believe that we can do that. We have had a lot of comeback wins this year."
Here's a breakdown for the top three teams in the East:
— The Giants were sitting comfortably atop the standings at 6-2, but have lost four of six in the second half. They've been a Jekyll-and-Hyde team over the past month, alternating impressive wins with lacklustre losses. A convincing 38-10 romp over Green Bay on Nov. 25 was followed up with a 17-16 loss to the Redskins. The Giants rebounded with a resounding 52-27 rout over New Orleans only to come back with an abysmal effort in a 34-0 loss at Atlanta.
"Unfortunately, we've had bad games in the past," coach Tom Coughlin said. "We have used the theme of consistency. Consistency two-fold: one, in terms of our execution and our performance, but the second thing is, the passion and so-on and so-forth that we bring to each and every game knowing the circumstances. Our team does know the circumstances very well."
The Giants entered their last two games last year off a disappointing loss to Washington. Then they beat the Jets to keep their playoff hopes alive and whipped Dallas to secure the division title.
Repeating won't be easy.
The Giants visit the reeling Baltimore Ravens (9-5) on Sunday. The Ravens already clinched their fifth consecutive trip to the playoffs, but have lost three in a row and are desperate to straighten things out.
"This is as important a game as you can have, this upcoming game, and our mindset is the playoffs have started," Manning said. "This is it. This game right here is huge. It's the most important game and it's a must-win game for us."
That mentality has been a proven formula for success for the Giants.
"We can draw on the experience. We did a year ago, six times in a row," Coughlin said. "That's kind of what we have to do here. If we're going to have an opportunity to get into the playoffs at all, we've got to win the next two games. Sort of the way it was a year ago."
The Giants finish up with a home game against Philadelphia (4-10). The Eagles seem like a pushover, but they beat New York in Week 4.
— The Redskins were counted out by their own coach when they were 3-6. But Robert Griffin III has them in position to earn their first playoff berth since 2007. Their five straight wins include victories over the Cowboys, Giants and Ravens. Even with RGIII sidelined by a knee injury, the Redskins rolled over Cleveland with another rookie, Kirk Cousins, at quarterback.
Griffin could be back for this week's game at Philadelphia. These aren't the same Eagles who looked pathetic in a 31-6 loss at FedEx Field last month. But these clearly aren't the same Redskins, who started their winning streak with that lopsided victory against Philadelphia. A win over the lowly Eagles would set up a potential all-or-nothing matchup against Dallas.
"I told our football team at the beginning of the year that, 'You guys don't know it, but you guys are a lot better than you think you are,'" Shanahan said. "They've obviously been proving that now."
— The Cowboys were 3-5 midway through the schedule and headed nowhere before winning five of six and three in a row. They've overcome tragedy — the death of practice squad player Jerry Brown — and a slew of injuries, particularly on defence. The wins haven't been pretty lately, but they count the same. Two more and Dallas gets in.
That injury-depleted defence has a difficult test coming up against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints (6-8) on Sunday. The Saints snapped a three-game losing streak with a 41-0 win over Tampa Bay that knocked the Buccaneers out of playoff contention last Sunday.
"We've got to focus on the task, and the task is to beat the New Orleans Saints," coach Jason Garrett said. "They had a great win against Tampa, so we've got to get our preparation right. We'll do it day by day and hopefully put our best foot forward on Sunday."
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