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The NFC East Race Ended Just How You’d Expect: With Ineptitude and a Backup QB

Sunday night’s regular-season-ending game between Washington and Philadelphia was a ridiculous affair that decided one of the worst divisional races in NFL history

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A series of plays near the end of Sunday night’s Washington-Philadelphia game served as a perfect microcosm for the ineptitude of the NFC East in 2020. In the fourth quarter of the NFL’s regular-season finale—and with the division crown on the line—the Eagles benched quarterback Jalen Hurts and brought in Nate Sudfeld, a fourth-year pro and career backup. On his second pass of the game, Sudfeld threw an interception. Three plays later, Washington quarterback Alex Smith threw a pick of his own. Then two plays after that, Sudfeld fumbled a low snap, and Washington defensive end Chase Young scooped it up.

This display helped determine the NFC East champion—which ultimately was Washington, after the team secured a painful 20-14 victory over the Eagles. Though it’s worth clarifying that this game wasn’t really for the NFC East’s crown. Washington needed to win the game to take the division, but the Eagles had already been eliminated from contention. If Philly had won, the division title would have gone to the 6-10 New York Giants, who beat the Cowboys 23-19 earlier in the day in an equally sloppy game that the Giants won despite going 0-for-7 on third down.

That fourth-quarter melee wasn’t the only strange part of this game, though, as putting Sudfeld in at all was a curious move by the Eagles staff. Teams will sometimes send backup quarterbacks out late in games when they need to evaluate talent on the roster. But Sudfeld is 27, has been on the roster since 2017, and is a free agent this offseason. Meanwhile Philadelphia desperately needs to evaluate Jalen Hurts, the rookie the team took with a second-round pick in April. Hurts earned just the fourth start of his career tonight, and while he struggled against Washington’s ferocious defense (he finished 7-of-20 for 72 yards and a pick, though he scored two rushing touchdowns), Philly wasn’t playing for anything other than the future. Seeing what they have in Hurts is part of that. Seeing what they have in Sudfeld is not.

Sudfeld went five-for-12 for 32 yards and an interception. He played so poorly that it made the Eagles’ decision to put him in the game seem suspicious. With a loss, the Eagles fell to 4-11-1, and earned the no. 6 overall pick in the NFL draft, jumping up from the no. 9 spot they would have held with a win. They also got to essentially choose who was the least distasteful division winner, the Giants or the Football Team. Besides, there is no city that trusts the process more than Philadelphia.

If that theory sounds a little conspiratorial, it gains some steam by what happened near the end of the fourth quarter. With two minutes left and Washington facing a fourth-and-inches, Eagles defensive lineman T. Y. McGill jumped offsides and committed a neutral zone infraction. That granted Washington a first down, and nearly allowed the Football Team to run out the clock.

About the only redeemable part of this game was Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth dancing around ways to say that the Eagles were intentionally losing as a middle finger to the Giants. At one point in the broadcast, Collinsworth got more direct, saying he “personally could not have done” what the Eagles were doing. The game ended with Sudfeld throwing a short crossing route to a receiver who was surrounded by Washington defenders, despite the team being down by only six. Philadelphia couldn’t even be bothered to try a Hail Mary.

The Giants, of course, were not happy.

But New York players should really only be upset at themselves. A mere seven wins was enough to win this division, meaning the Giants had an easier path to the postseason than any of the 28 teams outside of the NFC East.

Instead, we’re stuck with 7-9 Washington, a team that doesn’t even have a name and has cycled through three starting quarterbacks this season. The Football Team is such a mess that last week it released Dwayne Haskins, the QB whom it took in the first round less than two years ago. I’d love to leave the NFC East in the dustbin of history, but the NFL just can’t quit putting this division—and its large TV markets—in major time slots. Not only is Washington in the playoffs, but it’s scheduled to play the Tom Brady–led Buccaneers in a prime-time spot on Saturday night:

Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians said that his team wanted the no. 5 seed in the NFC, and while he clarified that the Buccaneers “don’t care” whom they play, Sunday night was a clear demonstration of why they might. This year’s NFC East is arguably the worst division ever, and next week the Buccaneers shouldn’t have to put in much more effort than the Eagles did on Sunday night to beat Washington.