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Same as last year, the NFC East is up for grabs

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Same as last year, the NFC East is up for grabs

PHILADELPHIA (AP) There's two weeks left in the NFL season and the NFC East is up for grabs among three teams.

Sound familiar?

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 lackluster 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 defense. The wins haven't been pretty lately, but they count the same. Two more and Dallas gets in.

That injury-depleted defense 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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Lamar Jackson ‘honored’ at the chance to break Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record on Sunday

Lamar Jackson ‘honored’ at the chance to break Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record on Sunday

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson didn’t grow up watching Michael Vick play football in Atlanta. He was too young. 

That didn't stop Jackson, born when Vick had just finished his sophomore year of high school, from studying Vick's highlight tapes as a kid.

Now, on Sunday in Buffalo, Jackson has the chance to put his name in the record books ahead of his favorite player with the most impressive season a quarterback has ever had on the ground. 

With just 63 yards rushing, Jackson would rank first all-time for rushing yards by a quarterback in a season. The record, as of Thursday, is held by Vick with 1,039 yards rushing. Vick set the record in 2006 with the Falcons.

“It would be an honor,” Jackson said. “Like I said, Michael Vick is my favorite player. For me to do such a thing, it’s incredible. He had that record for a long time, and it will be pretty cool. But I’m focused on the win, regardless.”

Jackson has led the NFL’s most dynamic offense through the first 12 games with a mix of rushing and passing that’s kept defenses on their heels. He ranks ninth in the NFL with 977 yards, which is more than five teams have as a whole.

Currently, Jackson has rushed for 1,672 yards in 28 games in his NFL career, good for 44th all-time. 

Over a 16-game season, he’s on pace for 1,302 yards on the ground, which would shatter Vick’s old record and put Jackson in another stratosphere compared to some of the best mobile quarterbacks the league has ever seen. 

Should he finish with 1,302 yards this year, he’ll be at 1,997 yards through his first two NFL seasons. That would put him 32nd all-time and about 500 yards away from cracking the top 20. 

So as Jackson adds to his place in history in the long term, there’s a significant record to break in the short-term, too.

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Ravens defense faces another challenge in dual-threat QB Josh Allen

Ravens defense faces another challenge in dual-threat QB Josh Allen

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — When Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson take the field on Sunday, they’ll set an NFL record before either one takes a snap from under center. 

The matchup pits the two second-year quarterbacks against one another in the NFL’s best matchup for rushing quarterbacks in history. 

The biggest difference, however, is how those yards have been reached. Jackson’s speed and acceleration is something the league hasn’t seen before, and while Allen can move, it’s not just his moves that make him difficult to bring around. 

“He’s a big kid, man, he’s like tackling a tight end scrambling,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale said. “It’s going to be a great challenge. So we’ll see what happens on Sunday. He makes a lot of plays on his feet, that’s been their success the last five, six weeks.”

At 6-foot-5, Allen has been a problem for opposing defenses to bring down all season. He’s rushed for 430 yards (third-best for quarterbacks) and eight touchdowns (tied for sixth in the NFL).

“It's not like he's a pipsqueak or anything like that,” Josh Bynes said. “He's a big, solid quarterback, and he runs like a running back. That makes it a little bit more challenging, because he's a quarterback, as well. So, we just have to make sure we wrap up and we bring our pads with us and bring our feet and just make sure we get him to the ground.”

Allen’s size has made him a tall-task for defenses, which plays out in a deeper dive of the numbers. 

According to Pro Football Reference, Allen ranks 22nd in the NFL in yards before contact at 2.2. Jackson ranks first at 4.8 yards.

But Allen averages 2.4 yards per rush after contact, 13th in the NFL and first for quarterbacks.

“When you watch him, he can run and move around,” Chuck Clark said. “He’s more elusive than what people would say or think. He can definitely get out the pocket, extend the play and run the ball himself. They’ve got a solid offense, they’re effective at what they do.”

Allen rushed for 631 yards last season in 12 games — the same amount as he’s played so far this year. He’s gotten better as a passer from a year ago, having improved his completion percentage, yards-per-attempt and touchdown-to-interception ratio. 

But while his big-time arm is something the Ravens are still focused on, it’s Allen’s legs — and size — that pose an extra dimension to his game that can be dangerous for the Ravens.

“You just have to be fundamentally sound and make sure you wrap him up, drive your feet if possible,” Michael Pierce said. “With the penalties, you have to be very careful. But he's a physical dude, big, 6-4 guy, so yes, you have to be fundamentally sound and bring your pads with you.” 

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