Making sense of the NFC East

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Going into this NFL season, the NFC East was predicted to stink. In fact, it was so bad that in an Onion article addressing every NFL team’s greatest strength, all teams in the NFC East were said to have the division as their biggest advantage. Yes, they were thought to be bad enough that they would in general get most of their wins by beating up one another.

Last season, the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins averaged a .478 winning percentage — good enough for roughly a 7-8 record. That just isn’t good. The Redskins had no offensive line and underperforming quarterbacks (QBs); the Giants’s Eli Manning threw 27 interceptions to 18 touchdowns and registered his lowest QB rating (by far) since his rookie year; Tony Romo choked away the final game of the season three years in a row, leading each time to 8-8 seasons and no playoffs; and Nick Foles was a fluke, playing on a team that would miss DeSean Jackson more than they knew. Each team appeared to have no chance of making the playoffs.

Fast forward to the present and the East has a surprising three teams in the playoff hunt, with a projected number one, five and eight seed in the much stronger NFC. The teams average a .600 winning percentage, equivalent to about ten wins over the course of a season. Fluke! Luck! Fire! Perhaps in some cases. Let’s break down which of these teams are legit, which are frauds and how this division has shocked the football world.

Let’s start with our home team, the Eagles, which thus far have been the best team in the division and the conference as a whole. Philadelphia has a 4-1 record, with the only loss being a close game to an impressive 49ers squad. This was expected, right? Last season they were the lone team in the playoffs, at 10-6, and Nick Foles led the league in QB rating behind arguably the best offensive line (OL) in the league. Same old story, right? Not exactly. This year’s Eagles squad might not be as sustainable over the course of a full season as last year’s rendition. How can a 4-1 team be unsustainable? Look back at the Arizona Cardinals from 2012, who were 4-0 and ended up losing 11 of their last 12 games and missing the playoffs. Now, these Eagles are definitely not that Arizona squad, as they have a far superior coach and more talent at key positions (QB and RB). That being said, they do have some red flags.

First, although the Eagles have great special teams, seven return touchdowns, five in the past two weeks just aren’t sustainable numbers. Additionally, they have made a habit of falling behind in games and having to crawl their way back, as well as barely winning close games over teams that they should have easily beaten. They barely beat the Rams 34-28 after conceding 17 straight points and won 37-34 against the hapless Redskins. While they did win these games, this cannot continue if they are to beat out the Cowboys for the division title. They have around a 40% third down efficiency, and Nick Foles, who led the NFL in rating last season (despite Peyton Manning having arguably the greatest season in NFL history) is 38th this season. The offensive line has been decimated by injuries and thus LeSean McCoy only has one touchdown this season, running for an average of under three yards per carry. And it wasn’t just the offense that has stagnated. The defense allowed the Redskins (19th in the league in PPG) to score 34 points and St. Louis to score 28, while Austin Davis threw 375 yards and three TDs. Anytime Austin Davis throws for almost 400 yards and three TDs, something is wrong with your defense. This isn’t a sustainable model. They are being out-thrown and out-rushed, with a negative turnover ratio and they have less time of possession than their opponents do. Eventually, this will catch up with them.

Now we get to the Dallas Cowboys, the team everyone loves or loves to hate. Indeed, it is the team that has finished 8-8 the last three seasons. Well, they’re halfway to that win total with only slightly more than a quarter of the season passed after a four game winning streak. In contrast to Philadelphia, the Cowboys look more hopeful. While the Eagles’ total yards and rushing yards are 14th and 23rd respectively, Dallas’ offense is more respectable, with a 400 yards per game average (fifthth in the league) and 160 rush yards per game — good for 2nd. The Cowboys may have the best offensive line in the game, and this is shown through Romo’s longer time in the pocket — he already has 9 touchdowns and a 99 QB rating against only 1 INT and Demarco Murray’s absurd 134 yards per game and 6 touchdowns. The Cowboys are closing out games strongly and already have a key victory against the talented Saints, 38-17. The Cowboys should manage at least a 2-2 record against Seattle, New York, Washington and Arizona and then against Jacksonville, leading them to a 7-3 start at the bye. That is the record of a balanced, playoff-bound team that is ready to finally be reckoned with.

The Giants are good — as good as their three game winning streak suggests — however, they might disappoint long term. Eli Manning is finally comfortable in the system that led to his 27 picks last year (11 TDs-5INTs this year), the talent is clicking, they’re over 50% on 3rd downs and the Giants have won three straight games by 10+ points for the first time since ’08. That’s not enough? This is despite only recovering one of their fumbles this season and two of their opponents’. Despite that bad luck they’re still 3-2. So why do I doubt them? Because they have Philadelphia, Dallas (away), Colts, Seahawks and 49ers in the next 5 weeks. This will test them greatly, and I just don’t see them coming out of that at .500.

The Redskins seemed to have potential early on. They sacked the Jaguars 10 times, had 53% third down efficiency, played the Eagles to a very close game and had a defensive line to be reckoned with. Once Robert Griffin III went down, they only improved. So what’s wrong? The bottom line is that the Redskins are just a poor team — they’re just not very good. They allow 27.2 ppg (27th in the league) and allowed five turnovers against the Giants. Three of their losses have been by double figures (and this week’s Seahawks loss could’ve been far worse if an amazing three touchdowns hadn’t been nullified by flags) and their lone win? Jacksonville. This team has issues at the quarterback position, allowing teams to run all over them, and if it weren’t for the Jaguars game, they would have the worst defense in football. They’re 1-4 and they will stay in the cellar of the NFC East.

The NFC East’s surprising run has been scintillating and fun to watch and I personally would love to watch them continue to play at such a high level. Simply put, however, I doubt their potential to maintain this level of play over the course of a long season. Either way, the race for the division title is wide open and going to be a fun ride.

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