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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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Will Suggs still be an impact player when he comes off PUP?

Will Suggs still be an impact player when he comes off PUP?

Clifton Brown and Bo Smolka are taking turns putting 25 key Ravens under the microscope leading up to veterans reporting to training camp. They’ll speculate on a best-case, worst-case scenario for at least one player every day, concluding with quarterback Joe Flacco on July 25.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: Terrell Suggs, 33-year-old outside linebacker

Best-case scenario:

Suggs makes a full recovery from Achilles injury and returns as a double-digit sack artist and three-down linebacker.

Why it could happen:

Suggs knows people are wondering how much quality football he has left. It’s dangerous to write off great players too soon. Suggs would love to silence skeptics with a strong season, and if some of the young Ravens pass rushers develop, they won’t have to overwork Suggs. If he stays healthy once he comes off the PUP list, a player with Suggs’ talent and experience can still be a valuable defensive leader.

Worst-case scenario:

The Achilles injury limits what Suggs can do, and he is no longer an impact player.

Why it could happen:

It’s asking a lot of Suggs to remain a cog in the Ravens’ defense, after 106 ½ career sacks, and entering his 14th NFL season. Sooner or later, the NFL road will end for Suggs, just like it ended for his former great defensive teammates like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. It will be interesting to hear Suggs’ thoughts on his career when he meets with the media Wednesday. If 2016 is not Suggs’ last ride, the end of the journey is getting closer.

RELATED: FIVE YOUNG PASS RUSHERS TO WATCH

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Five young pass rushers to watch, with Suggs and Dumervil on PUP

Five young pass rushers to watch, with Suggs and Dumervil on PUP

With Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil starting training camp on the PUP list, the Ravens’ young pass rushers have an opportunity to show what they’ve got.

It’s not surprising, or overly alarming, that Suggs (Achilles) and Dumervil (foot) aren’t ready to participate in full-team practices, which begin Thursday. The priority for them is to be ready by Week 1.

But the reality is that Suggs is 33 years old and Dumervil is 32 – closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. Remember when the Ravens loaded up on pass rushers in the draft? Training camp and the preseason will shed light on which young pass rushers are ready to contribute, and which ones are not.

RELATED: RAVENS NAME SIX PLAYERS TO THE PUP LIST

Here are five young Ravens pass rushers to watch closely during training camp and the preseason:

Kamalei Correa, rookie OLB

Correa might see more time at inside linebacker as a rookie, because the Ravens are looking for a starting inside linebacker next to C. J. Mosley. However, Correa’s skills as a pass-rushing outside linebacker at Boise St. convinced the Ravens he was worthy of being a second-round pick. If Correa is getting pressure on quarterbacks, the Ravens will find consistent snaps for him.

Matt Judon, rookie DE

He led the nation in sacks last season with 20 at Grand Valley State. As a fifth-round pick, Judon is making a major leap to the NFL and he is raw. But he also has size (6-foot-3, 275 pounds) and athleticism. Judon could earn an immediate role as a situational pass rusher.

Bronson Kaufusi, rookie DE

He’s huge (6-foot-6, 285 pounds). He’s mature, already 25 years old after completing a two-year Mormon mission before attending BYU. And he’s athletic, good enough to spend one season on BYU’s basketball team before focusing on football. The Ravens’ third-round pick, Kaufusi could also earn a role as a situational pass rusher.

Victor Ochi, undrafted OLB

Ochi (6-foot-1, 245 pounds) has a body build like Dumervil – powerful with a low center of gravity. The Ravens have had at least one undrafted rookie make their roster for 12 straight years. Ochi could extend that streak. He was hoping to be the first player from Stony Brook ever drafted. Now he’s hoping to prove he should have been drafted.   

Za’Darius Smith, second-year OLB

Smith finished strong as a rookie. Of his 5 ½ sacks, 3 ½ came over the final three games. According to Smith, Ravens coach John Harbaugh wants 10 sacks from Smith this season. If Smith becomes a double-digit sack artist, the Ravens’ pass rush will take a major leap.

MORE RAVENS: WILL SMITH'S BODY BETRAY HIM AGAIN?

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Suggs, Smith among six Ravens named to PUP list

Suggs, Smith among six Ravens named to PUP list

The Ravens announced six players placed on the physically unable to perform list Saturday - linebacker Terrell Suggs, wide receivers Steve Smith Sr. and Breshad Perriman, linebacker Elvis Dumervil, running back Trent Richardson, and cornerback Jumal Rolle.

Quarterback Joe Flacco (knee), cornerback Jimmy Smith (foot), tight end Dennis Pitta (hip), and cornerback Will Davis (knee) were not placed on PUP, indicating they were ready for the team’s first full-team training camp practice Thursday.

Any player on the PUP list can be activated and return to practice at any point prior to the regular season. Once a player is placed on the regular-season PUP list, he must sit out at least the first six weeks of the regular season.

RELATED: WILL SMITH'S BODY BETRAY HIM AGAIN?

Rolle (Achilles injury) is expected to miss the entire season. Here’s the breakdown on the other five PUP list players:

Suggs – He still has not fully recovered from his season-ending Achilles injury suffered in Week 1 last September. Suggs is scheduled to meet with the media Wednesday, where further details about his progress should be revealed.

Smith Sr. – Also recovering from a season-ending Achilles injury suffered in November. Smith said he would not care if he missed the entire preseason. His priority is to be ready by Week 1.

Perriman – He suffered a knee injury during minicamp which did not require season-ending surgery. However, Perriman has still not played a preseason or regular season game since being drafted in the first round in 2015. After two knee injuries in two years, the Ravens have every reason to be cautious with Perriman until they think he is ready to return.

Dumervil – He had offseason foot surgery after playing through pain last season. Dumervil missed mandatory minicamp, but did not sound concerned about being ready for Week 1.

Richardson – His lingering hamstring issue could ruin his bid for an NFL comeback. The Ravens are deep at running back, and Richardson needs to get healthy to have any chance to win a roster spot.

MORE RAVENS: FLACCO HAS LONG ODDS FOR MVP