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NFC East futility has destroyed the traditional rivalries

There was a time when playing your division rival was the most exciting thing in the world, but that’s no more.

The Philadelphia Eagles are playing the New York Giants this week on Monday Night Football.

There was a time that sentence would have sent Eagles and Giants fans into a foaming-at-the-mouth frenzy. The anticipation of such a game would be all-consuming. But no more.

As I played around on YouTube this week I was reminded of what a phenomenal rivalry this truly has been over the decades. At the beginning there was Chuck Bednarik almost committing involuntary manslaughter on Frank Gifford. There was the Miracle at the Meadowlands. There was Bill Parcells vs. Buddy Ryan, John Runyan vs. Michael Strahan, Brian Westbrook’s punt return in 2003, DeSean Jackson’s Miracle at the Meadowlands Part 2, and playoff matchups in the 2000s, all of which made this rivalry the No. 1 rivalry in the NFL.

But no one is excited for Monday night’s match-up, nor are they overly enthused about any of the remaining games on the Eagles’ schedule, including the Week 16 match-up against a Cowboys team that is disintegrating before our very eyes.

It’s hard to get excited for a division game when every single team in the division is a losing team. After their 31-24 loss to the Bears last night, Dallas joined the rest of their divisional brethren in the “Under .500” club, assuring that no matter what happens, every single team in the NFC East will have a losing record heading into the last three weeks of the season.

This is the worst division in football, there’s no disputing that. But the saddest thing is that reality has killed the traditional divisional rivalries that have made Eagles football so much fun over the years.

Last week, I did a podcast where I looked back at the 30th anniversary of the Bounty Bowl, a Thanksgiving Day game against the Cowboys in which Buddy Ryan put out a bounty on kicker Luis Zendejas and Troy Aikman. Yeah, that was a 1-15 Cowboys team, but they had been so dominant for so long, and Jimmy Johnson was such a character/personality, that all games against Dallas still resonated. The Eagles had decades of mojo to reverse, after all.

Now? Although the Cowboys have the Eagles’ number, they are just another team, and have been for two decades.

Looking ahead to Week 15’s game against Washington, no one is super excited about a lackluster Eagles team playing an even worse opponent who is starting a rookie quarterback (Dwayne Haskins) with no offensive skill players led by a head coach (Bill Callahan) who is probably going to be fired at the end of the year. It’s a far, far cry from this.

Week 16’s home game against the Cowboys will be for the division title and it should feel like a monster game. But after their loss in Miami last week to the Dolphins and the Cowboys’ loss last night, it doesn’t seem like we’re going to get a game that we can add to the lexicon of this rivalry.

In the 1980s, ‘90s and 2000s, the NFC East was either the best division in football, or one of them. From 1982-1991, Washington won three Super Bowls and were a winning ballclub virtually every year. The Giants went to five Super Bowls and won four of them between 1986 and 2012. Dallas won three Super Bowls in four years from 1992-95 and are, of course, “America’s Team.” The Eagles, despite not winning their Super Bowl until 2017, have been one of the most successful regular season franchises since 1988.

Every game crackled with intensity. Teams hated each other. There was the Body Bag Game, the Ice Bowl, The Miracle at RFK, a 1992 Week 16 game against Washington in a game that decided a postseason berth, all the miracles in New Jersey, Terrell Owens’ return to Philly, the 2008 game against Dallas and so so so many others.

Now, all four teams are losers.

While that may be great for the mediocre Eagles’ playoff chances, it sucks in terms of, you know, fun.

There’s something special about a game against a divisional opponent when both teams are really good and everything is one the line. For those of us that grew up on NFC East match-ups in which that was the case, it was the same as getting six built-in playoff-like games every season. Can you imagine a final month of the season where the Eagles were playing against Joe Gibbs’ Washington club, Bill Parcells’ Giants and Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys? Can you imagine a final month in which the Eagles had to take on Phil Simms, Troy Aikman and the trio of Art Monk, Gary Clark and Gary Sanders?

This month, the Eagles will play the rotting corpse of Eli Manning, Daniel Jones, Haskins and Dak Prescott, and they may not even win all of those games.

The death of the NFC East is depressing on many levels, but for me, the biggest thing it’s done is rob us all of some incredibly tense, exciting and fascinating regular season football.