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The Eagles Are Beginning to Look Like the Defending Champions Again. Can They Buck 14 Years of NFC East History?

Philadelphia has one of the best rosters in football. Washington may have the inside track to win the division.

Alex Smith and Carson Wentz AP Images/Ringer illustration

The last time an NFC East team won back-to-back division titles, George W. Bush was still in his first term. That year-to-year parity has defined the division going all the way back to 2004, with the Cowboys, Redskins, Giants, and Eagles alternating atop the standings in each of the past 14 seasons—and heading into this year’s second half, it’s looking like this group could stretch that streak to 15 in a row. Last year’s division winners, the Super Bowl champion Eagles, still have the NFC East’s best quarterback, most talented defense, and deepest overall roster—but with the Redskins holding the inside track to the division title, can Philly buck history, and a brutal second-half schedule, to make it back to the postseason?

After weathering a sluggish start, the 4-4 Eagles sit a full game behind the 5-3 Redskins at the midway point of their season. Philly’s first half was marred by sloppy play, some shaky coverage in the secondary, a few too many turnovers, and a little bit of bad luck. Yet there’s plenty of reason for optimism: the team’s four losses have come by a combined 15 points, they boast a division-best plus-22 point differential, and they aren’t far from getting back into playoff contention.

The offense, which stumbled out of the gates under backup quarterback Nick Foles, has begun to show signs of life with Carson Wentz back at the helm. Wentz, who missed the first two games while recovering from an ACL injury suffered in Week 14 last season, is back to playing like the MVP contender we saw last year; the third-year pro shook off the rust from a rocky Week 3 opener and has thrown 12 touchdowns and just one pick for a 114.5 passer rating in the five games since. The big-armed, dynamic passer gives the Eagles a chance every week.

Wentz’s return to form got a boost with Alshon Jeffery’s return to the field. The veteran pass catcher debuted in Week 4 after missing the start to the season with a shoulder injury, and hit the ground running—quickly emerging as the box-out, physical mismatch creator and red zone playmaker the team had been missing. He’s reeled in 29 catches and four touchdowns in five games. Jeffery joined an offense already anchored by tight end Zach Ertz, who continues to be a dependable target over the middle of the field (with a team-high 61 catches for 644 yards and three touchdowns), and Nelson Agholor and Jordan Matthews, who give Wentz quality depth in the pass-catching corps. Add in Golden Tate, acquired in a trade with the Lions for a third-round pick, and the Eagles offense is going to be a lot to handle for opposing defenses down the stretch.

Tate is one of the NFL’s most dangerous run-after-the-catch receivers in the league. He’ll help over the middle of the field and on screen plays, particularly on third downs, an area in which the team has regressed since last year. After finishing eighth in third down conversion rate in 2017, the Eagles rank 13th (41.3 percent) this season. That needs to improve, and Tate could be the answer. Tate’s open-field and route-running prowess is also useful in the red zone, and because of his breakaway potential from everywhere on the field, he’s someone the defense must account for on every snap. It might’ve taken a while for Philly to work out the kinks in the passing game, but with Wentz, Ertz, Jeffery, and Tate, the Eagles have what could be an elite air attack in the second half. That would go a long way toward making up for the team’s middling rushing attack this year, which has struggled behind a banged-up offensive line and has played mostly without Jay Ajayi (now on IR with an ACL injury).

Defensively, the Eagles have struggled at times—particularly in a few pivotal late-game moments, like their Week 4 loss to the Titans, when they gave up multiple fourth-down conversions to Marcus Mariota and Co. in overtime—but they have still posted respectable numbers in several key categories on the year. That unit ranks ninth in pass defense DVOA and tied for fifth in points allowed (19.5). They’re still generating pressure up front with the combination of Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Michael Bennett, and Chris Long, but that dominant defensive line play hasn’t led to as many turnovers this year as it did last season. The Eagles have just seven takeaways this season, putting them on pace for a dramatic drop-off from last season’s total (31). This unit could make a huge jump with the help of a flurry of turnovers down the stretch.

As the second half begins, the Eagles, though not perfect, still just feel like the favorites in the NFC East. That perception is no doubt helped by the fact the division-leading Redskins seem to be in danger of foundering. Reeling from a 38-14 trouncing at the hands of the Falcons last week, and dealing with a rash of injuries to basically the entire offensive line, Washington’s grip on the division lead remains tenuous. With left tackle Trent Williams expected to miss a month with a thumb injury, right tackle Morgan Moses nursing a knee injury, and both starting guards (Shawn Lauvao and Brandon Scherff) now done for the season, the foundation of Washington’s ball-control offense―its offensive line―has been thrown into flux. That might spell trouble for quarterback Alex Smith, who’s struggled to produce at the levels we saw in his career year in 2017, and could completely derail running back Adrian Peterson, who’s shown he can carry this offense when given a little bit of blocking up front.

Despite the contrasting shifts in momentum, though, the Redskins do hold one major advantage. Per Football Outsiders, Washington’s remaining strength of schedule ranks fourth-easiest, leaguewide, with future road games against the Buccaneers, Cowboys, Jaguars, and Titans, plus home games against the Texans and Giants to go along with their pair of crucial matchups with the Eagles (one at home, and one in Philly). Only one of those teams, Houston, currently has a winning record.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s remaining schedule ranks 11th-toughest. Five of the Eagles’ eight final games will be against teams currently above .500, including a pair of circle-your-calendar road matchups against the NFC’s two elite teams, the Saints (Week 11) and Rams (Week 15). The Eagles had better be ready to go punch for punch in those games, which could be the type where the first team to make a stop ends up on top. Add in home games against the Cowboys, Giants, and Texans, a road matchup against Dallas, and the two crucial Redskins games, and the Eagles’ road to the playoffs is a bumpy one.

Along with Washington’s one-game lead, that disparity in strength of schedule is a big reason that Football Outsiders gives the Redskins a 58.1 percent chance of winning the division, far exceeding Philly’s 30.6 percent shot at emerging atop the NFC East. Even deducting 10 percent in DVOA to account for the Redskins’ offensive line injury situation, writes FO’s Aaron Schatz, Washington still comes out on top in more of their simulations, carrying 47 percent odds of winning the division to just 38 percent for Philadelphia.

There’s a lot of season left, and the NFC East remains up for grabs. But while the Eagles may look ready to make a run at a repeat postseason appearance, their second-half schedule is a brutal obstacle standing in the way. With Washington ahead of them in the division, and plenty of competition for the conference’s two wild-card spots, there’s very little room for error for the defending champs.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Derek Barnett is helping the defensive line; Barnett is on injured reserve.