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Worst to first: The resurgence of the NFC East

Ezekiel Elliott playing for the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL. By Keith Allison - https://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/29150185404, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52228416 College football American football Dallas Cowboys
Expert
22nd November, 2016
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After years of inadequacy, disguised only by the bright lights of the marquee franchises populating it, the NFC East has finally returned to relevance. And the game’s most famous division isn’t just relevant again, it’s the best in the NFC – maybe in all of football.

The East is dominating the NFC playoff picture, occupying the number one seed (the 9-1 Cowboys) and both wild card spots (the 7-3 Giants and Washington at 6-3-1).

The one team not in that mix, and the only squad in the division without a winning record, are the 5-5 Eagles, who, shockingly, DVOA rates as the best team in the NFL.

The Cowboys’ rise is the obvious headliner from the division’s season-long narrative, but the Eagles’ ascension is just as improbable.

Roundly picked to be one of the worst teams in football during pre-season, Philadelphia has the third-best point differential in the league, behind only Dallas and New England.

They’ve notched a number of impressive victories, decimating the Steelers and taking care of fellow playoff aspirants Minnesota and Atlanta. Only their record in close games has undone them, having lost narrowly to the Giants, Cowboys, Lions and Washington, all games where they were either ahead or driving for a potential lead in the final two minutes.

Even on the weekend, in what turned out to be a fairly routine victory for the Seahawks, the Eagles lost little respect, proving again that they’re in the tier just below ‘belonging’. The defence was uncharacteristically porous, conceding touchdowns on a 72-yard CJ Prosise run and a trick play Doug Baldwin pass, but still showed flashes of what’s made it such a formidable unit all season, jumping the snap, converging on the backfield and playing with a swarming fury.

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman celebrates (Flickr: zennie62)

The sheen was worn off Carson Wentz after a whirlwind start, but he’s still shown enough to suggest that he’s the future. Judgement has to be reserved until he gets a semblance of a supporting cast on offence, because right now he’s a chef being told to make body lotion taste like chicken.

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Washington were the other NFC East team that entered 2016 with the biggest long-term question at quarterback, and the answers so far have been promising if not emphatic. At this stage we know what Kirk Cousins is – he’s going to beat up on bad defences like he did against Detroit and Cleveland, he’s going to struggle against elite units like Baltimore and Philadelphia, and he’s going to yell delicious words into up-close cameras.

The Washington offence, with one of the league’s best and most diverse collection of wide-outs, puts Cousins in the best position to succeed. The defence remains uninspiring, but with the talent on the other side of the ball, it doesn’t need to inspire, only endure. Over a brutal next month (at the Cowboys, at the Cardinals, at the Eagles, home to Carolina) we’ll see if Washington are really a top-eight team like DVOA has pegged them, or whether they’re just a glossier version of the same nice, innocuous side they were last year.

A team that doesn’t have to worry about resembling last season are the New York Football Giants. The Giants might be the worst 7-3 team of all-time, but even if they beat Cleveland this week and then close on a five-game losing streak (don’t put it past them), they’ll still have had their best season since 2012.

Last year the Giants were a train-wreck on defence, a bottom-three unit, and a slightly below-average offence. This year the offence, which was supposed to be explosive, has remained frustratingly mediocre, but the defence has flirted with elite status. New York haven’t given up 30 points all season, a year after they gave up 52 and 49 to New Orleans and Minnesota.

Big Blue’s defence hasn’t been overpowering or dominant, skewing more towards consistent and reliable. The revamped defensive line has been a minor disappointment as a pass rushing unit, with the Giants ranking 30th in the league in adjusted sack rate, but the annually shoddy run defence has been shored up, with only four teams conceding fewer yards per rush.

New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr (13) makes a one-handed catch for a touchdown

Even with the strong defence, the five-game winning streak and the 7-3 record, it’s hard to know if the Giants are really all that good. They haven’t won a game by more than a touchdown all season, and their only ‘impressive’ win came in Week 1 against the Cowboys, before Dak Prescott was Dak Prescott.

Entering week 11, DVOA pegged New York as the 16th best team in football, a fair reflection of the eye test. They’re good enough to always stick around, and then they have playmakers like Odell Beckham Jr on offence and Landon Collins (who is catching everything in sight) on defence to make game-breaking plays in the fourth quarter.

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It might all be smoke and mirrors, but the upside for the offence is significant, and there’s little reason to think the defence should regress. They’ve already banked seven wins, and if the Giants make it to the postseason, everyone in Boston will head to the local chaplain.

But even so, the team that New England and the rest of the league should fear most from the ‘East’ is Dallas.

For weeks we waited for the Cowboy mirage to collapse, but it’s only solidified. The Cowboys are legitimate, and the world should be afraid of the very real possibility that Donald Trump’s inauguration and Jerry Jones’ coronation could come within the same fortnight in 2017.

With respect to Atlanta, New England and Oakland, the Cowboys have the best offence in the league. While those teams are stacked in specific areas, the Cowboys are loaded across the board. They have the game’s best offensive line, so dominant that it creates tunnels instead of holes for the game’s best running back, a player perfectly adept at creating space for himself anyway.

Dez Bryant is back and doing the things only he can do, winning jump balls in the end zone that feel like a centre posting up a point guard. He regularly defies physics, with the ability to generate impossible, powerful momentum from a standing start. He is a monster and he is beautiful.

It was argued in this space that the Cowboys should hand the reigns over to Tony Romo because their ceiling would be higher with Romo than with Prescott. That argument is on the verge of being retired. Prescott has gone to a new level the past three weeks, putting the Steelers to the sword with clutch throws and dicing through the Ravens’ excellent defence on the weekend.

American footballer and Dallas Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott

He’s not just a Rookie of the Year candidate, he might be the MVP.

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That’s if Ezekiel Elliott doesn’t take one or both of those awards from him. Olivier Vernon, Josh Norman, Sterling Shephard, Carson Wentz and other exquisite talents joined the NFC East over the offseason, but it’s Prescott and Elliott who have catapulted the division to the top of the conference.

Their additions point to the fundamental flaw in any argument regarding divisional re-alignment – how can you re-align something when you have no idea what it’s going to look like a year from now? Last year, Washington won the NFC East by two games at 9-7. This year, 13-3 might only get you second place.

The NFL postseason is a game of Russian roulette, but the NFC East is looking intent on loading three of its conference’s six chambers itself. As a result, who’s to say this division doesn’t have the best shot of any at producing the Super Bowl champion?