NFL

The NFC East Is Back To Being A Beast

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by Chris Boyle

Finally, the NFC East is back.

After several downtrodden years, the league’s most storied and combative division features four teams with records over .500. And there’s plenty of reason to believe the NFC East could have multiple playoff participants for the first time since 2009.

On the backs of spectacular rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, the Dallas Cowboys have won their last eight games. Dallas leads the league in rushing (161 yards per game) and has the best point differential (+88) of any team in football.

And perhaps the biggest issue looming in Big D was resolved this week.  Tony Romo effectively conceded the starting job to Prescott, a fourth-round pick out of Mississippi State whose 106.2 passer rating ranks fourth among all qualified quarterbacks.

“Football is a meritocracy; you aren’t handed anything,” Romo told reporters in a press conference this week. “You earn everything, every single day. Over and over again, you have to prove it. That’s the way the NFL, football works.

“A great example of this is Dak Prescott, and what he’s done. He’s earned the right to be our quarterback. As hard as that is for me to say, he’s earned that right.”

Prescott protects the football and allows the Cowboys to maintain balance. Only five teams have given the ball away fewer times than Dallas (7), including only two interceptions in his first 280 professional pass attempts.

Elliott already may be the game’s most dangerous running back, taking full advantage of the game’s premier offensive line. In a dominant three-touchdown effort against Pittsburgh last weekend, the first-rounder from Ohio State topped the 1,000-yard mark and provided the winning score in a 38-35 classic.

But let’s not overlook the rest of the division.

The New York Giants, quietly, won their fourth consecutive game on Monday night, a 21-20 slugfest against Cincinnati. Big Blue’s notched six wins by a total of 21 points, overcoming a minus-8 turnover differential.

Jerry Reese’s enormous defensive investment – more than $200 million worth of free-agent contracts – is looking better each week. The Giants have the NFL’s top red-zone defense, allowing only 13 touchdowns on 31 possessions.

“It’s just defending our territory, basically,” defensive end Olivier Vernon told Newsday. “You never want to have it fall on us where you give up points. We take a lot of pride in that, our defense as a whole. It’s still something we have to work on. We gave up a touchdown this past game in the red zone. That’s not up to our standards.”

Vernon, the priciest of the Giants’ prizes, had 11 tackles and a sack on Monday night, his best performance to date. Janoris Jenkins (11 pass defenses, 2 interceptions) and Landon Collins (team-leading 74 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 interceptions) have been sensational in the secondary.

Offensively, the Giants remain wildly unbalanced. Aside from the fourth quarter of Monday’s game, they’ve had no success running the ball. Eli Manning’s on pace to set a new career-high in completion percentage but has tossed 10 picks. Odell Beckham Jr.’s recovered nicely from smacking his face off the kicking net to score six times in his last five games.

Washington found itself in a similar position at the beginning of the year, throwing it nearly 75 percent of the time in its first two games. Rob Kelley has emerged as the top running back, averaging 4.8 yards per carry with no fumbles on 60 carries. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Kirk Cousins has posted a 96.6 Total QBR on play-action with Kelley in the backfield.

The Redskins rank third in passing offense and 11th in rushing; the problems have occurred inside the red zone. Washington’s scoring touchdowns at a league-low rate of 38.8 percent inside opponents’ 20-yard line.

Washington enters a brutal five-day stretch, hosting Green Bay on Sunday night before traveling to Dallas on Thanksgiving.

“I’m not sure anyone’s ever had to do this,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said this week. “The schedule makers did us no favors.”

Cruel as it may be, the Philadelphia Eagles sit in the basement despite a 5-4 record and an impressive home win over Atlanta. There’s plenty of reasons to believe Philly will contend by season’s end – a plus-66 scoring margin (third-best in the NFL), a 4-0 home record, 25 sacks (tied for sixth), a plus-6 turnover ratio (fifth-best).

So, what’s the problem?

Well, Philly dug itself into an 0-3 divisional hole – albeit all road games. Dallas, Washington and the Giants still have to visit Lincoln Financial Field.

After a terrific start, Carson Wentz has regressed toward the mean as a rookie passer, averaging 222.8 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions over his last five games. Still, he’s drawn rave reviews – even from opponents.

“I’ve been fortunate to watch Carson this past year and see a few of his games and he’s playing great football and he’s going to be a great football player for a long time,” Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said in an article on Comcast Sportsnet Philadelphia.

“He’s athletic, he can make all the throws, he’s a smart guy, he’s competitive. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a great football player. You guys have a good one in him.”

Outside of a pair of explosive catches by Bryce Treggs against the Giants, Philadelphia still lacks a true vertical threat to threaten opposing safeties. The team’s receiving corps averages 10.5 yards per catch, 28th in the league.

It’s still far too early to sort through the NFC East; each team still has three divisional games over the final six weeks of the regular season.

But at least they’ll mean something this time around.


About Charlie Bernstein

Charlie Bernstein

Charlie Bernstein is the managing football editor for Football Insiders and has covered the NFL for over a decade.  Charlie has hosted drive time radio for NBC and ESPN affiliates in different markets around the country, along with being an NFL correspondent for ESPN Radio and WFAN.  He has been featured on the NFL Network as well as Sirius/XM NFL Radio and has been published on Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated, ESPN as well as numerous other publications.