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NFC ‘Least’: An assessment of the worst division in football

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Danielle Hunter #99 of the Minnesota Vikings (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Five years ago, the NFC East was one of the best divisions in football. The Cowboys had the best record in the NFC, the Giants were a clear playoff team, and even the worst team in the division – the Eagles – almost finished .500. One year later, the division became the home of the Super Bowl champion.

Now, the division race might be over before the halfway point of the season.

It didn’t have to be like this, either. There were signs of encouragement. Optimism, even. But after seven weeks, most of those signs have been destroyed, vandalized, or melted down to remove all prior memory of them.

Despite Washington winning the division with a losing record in 2020, they actually entered the season with some promise. Quarterback play was always going to be a concern with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Taylor Heinicke under center, but Fitzpatrick was a veteran of the league and Heinicke was a quarterback with playoff experience. He almost knocked the eventual Super Bowl champions out of the playoffs in the Wild Card round!

Heinicke has taken most of the snaps courtesy of a Week 1 injury to Fitzpatrick, and while he hasn’t looked horrendous, it’s been a far cry from the quality that brought Washington fans optimism after they were eliminated from the playoffs by Brady’s Bucs a season ago. But the even bigger disappointment for Washington has been on the other side of the ball. What specifically? Well, everything. The defense that was one of the best in the league at limiting points a season ago has done a complete 180, and Washington now boasts the worst scoring defense in the league. Worse than Detroit, Houston, and both New York teams. The Football Team was never supposed to be dominant, but there was hope that they’d be better than 2-5 through seven weeks.

Speaking of those New York teams, the one wearing blue and white has been a beacon of disappointment as well. In what was advertised as a crucial season in the career of Daniel Jones, he’s ranged from average to abysmal aside from a Week 4 win over New Orleans. His five passing scores ranks him 29th in the NFL among quarterbacks and sits him behind names like Jimmy Garoppolo and Russell Wilson, despite both missing time (to be fair, Jones did sit for parts of the Cowboys game in Week 5, but he still played the entire first half).

Saquon Barkley was one of the exciting storylines out of this division in preseason. The former Penn State running back was fully recovered from a torn ACL he suffered in Week 1 of last season, and while he’s had his moments in 2021, it still looks like he’s a step behind. He’ll fix himself, no doubt – but the Giants offense isn’t good enough to consistently function when Saquon isn’t clicking.

The Giants look like one of those teams that have quality but haven’t been able to get all of it to click at the same time yet. The defense has looked competent at points – decent, even, as evidenced by their Week 7 game when they held Carolina to just three points – but they still rank as the fifth-worst scoring defense in the NFC.

Philadelphia is very obviously a team in transition. The Eagles are led by a first-year head coach in Nick Sirianni and a first-year starter in Jalen Hurts. The most valuable pieces on offense are rookie wide receiver DeVonta Smith, second-year receiver Jalen Reagor, and third-year running back Miles Sanders after dealing veteran tight end Zach Ertz to Arizona. Truth be told, it should have every Eagles fan excited for the future.

But they, like Washington and like New York, have struggled on the defensive side of the ball. They boast one of the worst run defenses in the league – 117. 1 rush yards allowed per game is the third-highest tally in the NFL – and they allow 26.4 points per game, slotting them in at fourth worst in the NFC. It was on full display in Week 3, when the Eagles travelled to Dallas for Monday Night Football and let their NFC East division rivals drop 41 points. Six days later, the Chiefs hung 42.

That leaves Dallas, who currently sit atop the division at 5-1. Whether you view the Cowboys as a legitimate Super Bowl contender or simply a product of the worst division in football, it’s easy to discount their reputation thanks to the fact that they play the Giants, Eagles, and Washington a combined six times. But even though they come from the East, they shouldn’t be short-changed. The Cowboys have taken care of business when they’ve needed to.

That primetime win over Philadelphia was the first example. A 20-point drubbing of a division rival on national television (in Dak Prescott’s third game back from the gruesome injury he suffered a season ago, by the way) showed the league that Dallas is in a class of its own when it comes to the NFC East. Two weeks later, they shut down the Giants at home by a score of 44-20, adding to the case that they should be in the top tier of teams in the NFC alongside the Cardinals, Buccaneers, and Packers.

And whether you think Mike McCarthy’s Cowboys belong in that top flight or not, it’s hard to argue that they’ll need to do more in their divisional games than any other contender in the NFC. Because a loss to any of team from the NFC East will say a heck of a lot more than a win will.

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