A lot has happened since 2004. Apple has released 14 different versions of the iPhone. LeBron James has played for three different teams over 20 seasons and won four titles. Twitter was invented, set out on the public, developed a sub-culture of its own, and nearly killed itself all since that year.
One thing that hasn’t happened since 2004—the NFC East has not had a single one of its four teams win the division in back-to-back seasons.
Not since Andy Reid and the Philadelphia Eagles polished off their fourth consecutive NFC East crown back in 2004 has anyone been able to crack the code, leading to one of the most confusing long-running bits in the history of sports discourse.
In the 18 seasons since then, the Eagles have won the division six times, as have the Dallas Cowboys, while the Commanders have won it three times as previously mentioned, and the New York Giants have also somehow only won it three times despite also winning two Super Bowls in the same time period.
Winning in any professional sport is difficult, and football is no different, but winning a division in back-to-back seasons is not exactly the hardest feat to accomplish in the sport. With only four teams per division, all it takes is one franchise quarterback and/or three incompetent organizations for one team to run the quartet for years on end.
The Buffalo Bills have won the last three AFC East titles, and before that, the New England Patriots won it 11 straight times. The Kansas City Chiefs enter 2023 hoping to win the AFC West for the eighth year in a row. The Pittsburgh Steelers have won the AFC North in back-to-back seasons three different times since the NFC East last had a repeat champion. The Green Bay Packers have ripped off streaks of four straight and three straight NFC North crowns since 2005 as well.
The second-longest stretch an NFL division ever went through without having the same champion in consecutive years was in the AFC West from 1988 through 2000, and the current NFC East is well past that. The only three teams that have never won back-to-back division titles are the Atlanta Falcons, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Detroit Lions. There is no pure, makes-sense-100-percent explanation for why the NFC East has been like this, but there’s one major factor that stands out above the rest:
Go ahead and try to figure out who has been the best and (more importantly) most consistently good quarterback in the NFC East since 2005. It reveals a lot.
Late-career Donovan McNabb still helped lead the Eagles to a division title in 2006 and one last NFC Championship appearance in 2008, but it was clear that he had fallen off from his prime years. Eli Manning’s whole career was defined by his inconsistency, as he was pretty obviously mediocre for all 16 years of his career but inexplicably got hot enough in January to win two Super Bowls and spark what will most likely be the most toxic Hall of Fame debate in NFL history.
Dak Prescott is probably the correct answer to the best and most consistent equation in the NFC East, but even he has his warts. The decisions made by the Cowboys’ front office and coaching staff during the Prescott era have held their team success back more than anything, and Dak breaking his ankle early in 2020 ruined an otherwise promising season. But he’s also had his career defined by just not quite being good enough to break into the elite tier of NFL quarterbacking, which doesn’t make it entirely shocking when he gets surpassed by a peer such as Jalen Hurts.
You can list off a million other NFC East quarterback names and find similar shortcomings. Kirk Cousins was and still is a poor man’s Prescott in terms of just never being good enough. Carson Wentz completed the MVP-frontrunner-to-out-of-the-league speedrun in record time. The Giants were terrible for three years with Daniel Jones, and after one season with slight improvements, decided to empty the bank for a guy who is unanimously considered the third-best quarterback in the division. Tony Romo loved nothing more than losing a division-deciding game in the last week of the season.
It matters to run through these names because every streak of division dominance is spurred by one team having a quarterback that stands out above the rest. NFC North fans lived in fear of Aaron Rodgers for 15 years. No team from the AFC West can ever get anything more than a wild-card spot because you can just pencil in Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs as the champs year after year. Tom Brady was the biological father of the Bills, New York Jets, and Miami Dolphins for 20 years running.
The last time the NFC East had a boogie man in that vein was early-career McNabb, and even then I’d bet Dallas, Washington, and New York were more afraid of those Eagles teams as a whole than they were the man quarterbacking it.
The Eagles *might* finally have the boogie man back in Hurts, though. The soon-to-be fourth-year quarterback finished second in MVP voting, spearheaded the league’s most feared rushing attack, and unlike his predecessor in Wentz, does not seem to be actively hated by his teammates. Even though the Eagles ultimately fell against the Chiefs in the waning moments of the Super Bowl, there’s a case to be made that the 2022 Eagles were the best team by talent and production that the NFC East has produced since 2005.
The Eagles are easily the betting favorite to win the NFC East in 2023, even with the Cowboys returning as a top-tier contender in the NFC as a whole. Philadelphia’s quarterback is young and improving, its offensive line retained its Hall-of-Fame players, and the biggest personnel loss the team suffered was the departure of Javon Hargrave—and while it sucks to lose him, it’s a manageable hit.
All logic points to the bizarro curse of the NFC East defending champ finally being snapped in 2023. The Eagles might have the best quarterback the division has seen in 20 years and should be a juggernaut for years on end. It’s all right there, easy to see.
But there’s a common truth in sports: it’s always hard to bet on something happening for the first time. No one would ever have thought a 16-seed would down a 1-seed in March Madness until UMBC finally did it in 2018—even though sports shows had been running graphics for years showing how odd it is that we had never gotten that specific upset up to that point. The Boston Celtics going down 3-0 but winning Game 4 sparked nerds internet-wide to point out how statistically speaking a comeback from down 3-0 should have happened by this point in NBA history.
All probability and odds-based thinking says that the NFC East can’t keep getting away with this and that the Eagles will repeat as division champs in 2023. But it’s extremely hard to bet against precedent. Every NFC East division champ feels good going into its next season, only to get the rug ripped out from under them. I believe in curses more than I believe in numbers, and for the last 18 years, the NFC East has definitely been cursed.
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