The NFC East has long flirted with being a punchline. From the Redskins being embroiled in controversy around every corner to the Cowboys embarrassing administrative mismanagement over the past decade, the league has been a disaster. But that doesn’t change the fact that the division has some of the most passionate fans in the game. Below is our preview of the division. As with all things unprovable, we are 100% correct all the time and should not be questioned.
Expected record: 7-9
I’m predicting a 4-4 record after the first eight games, followed by a 3-5 the next eight. On paper vs. this season’s schedule, there are plenty of reasons for Washington to start 3-1, win three of the following four and be 6-2 after eight. But this is Washington. Execution is a fantasy.
Key Matchup: September 13 vs. Miami
Yes, opening day is my primary key matchup. I list this because, for Washington, the need to set the tone early is season-defining. Miami is vulnerable in the same way that Washington is, and if the Skins can grab game one, they follow with St. Louis (winnable) and New York (interesting) after. Can Washington go 3-0 before the schedule gets tough? Speaking of New York…
Key Matchups: September 24 at New York & October 4 vs Philadelphia
Not only are these games three and four of the season, but they are also the first two against divisional opponents. Washington needs to AT LEAST split these two games after (ideally) winning the first two games. In a sixteen game season, the difference between 3-1 and 2-2 is explicably significant, emphasizing the need to set a winning tone early.
Impact Player: Brandon Scherff (OL)
A rookie, yes, but a fifth overall pick selected specifically to protect the quarterback. I wrote last week that some blame can be lifted from the Redskins quarterbacks and applied to their offensive line, and I still believe that. I don’t think Kirk Cousins vs. Robert Griffin vs. Colt McCoy matters one bit if the offensive line can’t protect them. Scherff, occupying center and the Redskins’ very valuable fifth (overall) pick this past year, may be the most important variable in the offensive line’s success this season.
New York Giants
Expected record: 8-8
Key Matchup: November 15 vs. New England
I list this as my primary key matchup for narrative sake. The truth is, every divisional matchup is going to bring up some sort of significance within the Giants’ season, but because Eli Manning has two rings, Tom Brady just won his fourth, and his two losses have come to the Giants. The pressure and talk will be there, and depending on New York’s season, this could be a turning point in either direction.
Key Matchups: October 19 at Philadelphia & October 25 vs Dallas
Games six and seven of the season will decide what kind of pressure New York faces in November against New England. They will have already played two games within the division at this point, possibly losing both, and in the NFL, the playoffs hinge on the divisional record more than any other sport. Grabbing a game here will be instrumental to their competing for a playoff spot.
Impact Player: Eli Manning (QB)
I think the easy go-to choice here is Odell Beckham, Jr. After all, the reigning offensive Rookie of the Year has set the bar high for himself, but Eli is the leader of this team. As I mentioned above, he’s the one with two rings. He’s the one battling with his brother’s shadow and the one with a severe turnover problem the last couple of years (41 total the last two years). His decision making will be the ultimate deciding factor in the Giants’ success this year.
Expected record: 10-6
I still believe in the Cowboys ability to move the ball in the air, but I also suspect that they will feel some pain at the running back position. I respect Randle, as well as Dallas’s offensive line, but I don’t imagine Randle having the same kind of success that Demarco Murray experienced last year. As a result, I see Tony Romo facing increased pressure, and Dallas dropping a few winnable games.
Key Matchup: November 1 vs. Seattle
This will be almost the halfway point of the season for Dallas (game 7), and a true measurement of whether they are a contender or not. What has plagued Dallas the last decade or so is a trend of mediocrity. The Giants have two Superbowl wins, the Eagles have 7 division titles and a Superbowl appearance since 2000, and the Redskins underachieve consistently enough that there are never any expectations. Dallas finally broke through the 8-8 label last year, and even won a playoff game. Seattle has appeared in back-to-back Superbowls. If Dallas can win this game, nobody will doubt them until they give us reason to again, the following Sunday.
Key Matchups: September 13 vs. New York & September 20 at Philadelphia
Dallas opens the season against two divisional opponents, including the favorite / darling of NFL experts, the Philadelphia Eagles. Making a statement early (as they did last year) could set the Cowboys on a direct path to the playoffs.
Impact player: Joseph Randle, RB: During Demarco’s incredible run in the first half of last season, many of his critics attributed his success to the strength of Dallas’s offensive line. There is some truth to that, but if the Cowboys and Randle want to separate themselves from a blatant absence on the roster, then Randle will have to utilize that same advantage that Murray had and produce on the ground. If not, then we have to recognize the talent and drive of Demarco Murray who not only plays for a different team, but a division rival.
Expected record: 11-5
I can imagine the Eagles splitting with their division, and finding success outside of it. That being said, I can also imagine the Eagles dominating their division and hitting roadblocks elsewhere in the NFL. I’m a Chip Kelly skeptic, but a Bradford / Murray believer. They will win the NFC East one way or another, if only because I don’t believe the other teams don’t deserve it.
Key Matchup: September 20 vs Dallas
I think it will be in Philadelphia’s best interest to deliver a blow to the Cowboys early in the season and establish a clear hierarchy within the NFC East. I’m a believer in what Philadelphia can do, but having stolen Dallas’s running back in the offseason, making a dramatic change at the quarterback position, and facing the reigning division champ early, the Eagles are going to need this win to validate the hype surrounding them. It feels like Michael Vick all over again.
Key Matchups: December 16 vs Washington & January 3 at New York
Back-to-Back division games to close the end of the season and I think they may be the deciding factor in this division. Though I predict the Eagles to win the division, I imagine Dallas will do their part to keep it competitive until the very end. The losers of the NFC East have proven to be spoilers in the past, and though Washington and New York may not be fighting for playoff spots, they will be competing for pride. This will not be the time for Philadelphia to let their foot off the pedal.
Impact players: Sam Bradford (QB) / Demarco Murray (RB)
Doesn’t Sam Bradford’s career feel eerily similar to Robert Griffin’s? Granted, the Rams never faced nearly as much controversy as the Redskins, outside of their potential move to Los Angeles, but Bradford is a former Heisman trophy winner plagued by injury since his arrival in the league. He’s been given a fresh start in Philadelphia (similar to what RG3 needs elsewhere), and has looked good so far this preseason. Will this be his coming out party? Demarco Murray, on the other hand, is coming off a career year in which he spurned a team and offensive line that contributed to that success. If he wants to avoided the “overrated” label and receive the respect he feels he deserves, then he has to show up and produce the same way he did last year. If he does, we can drop the talk of Dallas’ offensive line, and perhaps alleviate some pressure from Sam Bradford.