Yes, technically, the New York Giants remain alive in the NFC East race. But in 2013, all that means is that they haven't folded the franchise. In few cases throughout history would a team three games under .500 with seven to play -- and 1.5 games back of two teams against which it's a combined 1-2 -- have legitimate cause for hope. But in this year's NFC East, everyone gets to hope because no one's any good and the rules say someone has to win it.
For fans of the division's teams, this is fine. If you root for the Giants (3-6) or the Redskins (3-6) or the Eagles (5-5) or the Cowboys (5-5), and you care about nothing but your own team's results, it's great. Just get into the playoffs and anything can happen. Who cares that you were 9-7 or 8-8 or even 7-9, as the NFC West champion Seahawks were in 2010. If you get in, you have a shot, and that's all that matters.
But when you step back and examine the NFL as a whole, the NFC East represents pretty much everything that's wrong with the league in 2013. And it is nothing about which to feel proud, excited or encouraged.
The problem is that, rather than push its players and teams toward greatness, this concept draws too many of them gravitationally toward a mediocre middle ground, where poorly played games between backup quarterbacks too often end up too significant. George Will wrote that "Sports serve society by providing vivid examples of excellence." But in this regard, the NFL increasingly fails.
The last three Super Bowl champions have had regular-season records of 10-6, 9-7 and 10-6. The middle one is of course the 2011 Giants, who were 7-7 on Christmas Eve morning and went on a six-game winning streak to claim the title. The only team ever to win a full-season NFC East with fewer than 10 victories, the only team ever to win the Super Bowl with so few, the only team ever to be crowned champion after allowing more than 400 points in a season, those Giants are the toothless grin on the face of an emerging and upsetting core NFL principle:
You don't have to be all that good to be a champion.
If you like the NFL and want it to be the best it can be, this should concern you. And so should the extent to which its teams and players have embraced it. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is constantly pointing to his team's 8-8 records the past two years, then to the records of those years' Super Bowl champs, and making the point that the Cowboys don't have to improve by much to be title contenders. Slightly above average has become a legitimate goal for one of the league's marquee franchises, and the Cowboys are not the only one.
"For us, a good season doesn't necessarily equate to 12 or 13 wins," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck told me in August, after a training camp practice. "For us, a good season is clicking the last three games of the season and squeaking into the playoffs. That's how I want to be. I really do. I'm more confident that way. I remember being 12-4 and beating the crap out of everybody [in 2008] and losing in the first round of the playoffs."
The sad part is that he's right. There's no reward for working hard to excel for the four months of the regular season. No compelling reason to be your absolute best for 16 games. You don't have to be. You can have a good month-and-a-half and get a Lombardi Trophy for it. Never mind what the fans are paying for tickets and parking, or what the networks are paying to put your games on TV. Don't sweat it. Lose the first six games of your season, and in today's NFL, you can still be in the race.
There are a lot of factors contributing to this. The salary cap, of course. The reductions in offseason practice time. The fact that at least one of the very best players in the league suffers a significant injury every week that keeps him off the field for an extended period of time. It might be that sustained excellence over a period of 16 weeks is, in fact, unattainable because of the grueling nature of the sport. It might be unavoidable. But that doesn't make it OK that there are so many unwatchable games between so many below-average teams every single Sunday.
Call me curmudgeon, but I assure you that I take no joy in any of this. Like Mr. Will, I watch sports hoping to see something great. I come away disappointed when I believe I've seen something average or worse, as I did Sunday at MetLife Stadium, and after pretty much every game I have covered this season. I have no favorite team, so I find no joy in the fact that someone won or lost a terrible game. I see only the terrible game, and wish it had been better.
The NFL has greatness in it, and when its great players are doing great things in games against each other that carry high stakes, it's a beautiful thing to watch. I rather like the NFL when it's at its best, and I'd like to see it more. The problem is, the trend is toward less, the movement toward the muddy middle. And the 2013 NFC East is the heinous epicenter of that movement. Someone will win it, sure. But it won't be a good team. And it won't be anything of which the NFL should be proud.