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What the Hell Is Going On in the NFC East?

The Eagles took over first place in the division on Sunday night by barely beating the 49ers and earning their first win of the season. Can the Cowboys, Giants, or Washington pull things together, or is this division destined to be a mess all season?

Getty Images/Ringer illustrations

My mother once told me that if I have nothing nice to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. Relatedly, she and I haven’t discussed the NFC East this season.

The league’s worst division—or, uh, eighth-best division—is a combined 2-11-1 against non-divisional opponents this season. The Philadelphia Eagles won their first game of the year on October 4, and that was somehow enough to vault them into first place. The Eagles have the top spot to themselves because last week, they eked out an overtime tie with Cincinnati, the league’s worst team in 2019.

The entire division smells. Washington, whose only win is against Philadelphia and is 1-3 on the season, is in second place. Also at 1-3 is Dallas, a team that needed a miraculous comeback win against Atlanta to avoid starting 0-4. Pulling up the rearest of rears is the Giants, who have scored the fewest points in the NFL. Only five teams have turned the ball over more than seven times—four of those are in the NFC East, and the division has been outscored by 125 points already through four games. The AFC East is the only other division to be outscored by even 25.

With such a sad start to the season, let’s look at the four NFC East teams and see which of these wretches is going to emerge with a playoff spot—and maybe we’ll even find something nice to say about them along the way.

Dallas Cowboys (1-3)

The Cowboys started their game against the Browns on Sunday by taking a 14-7 lead. That was good. Then they allowed Cleveland to score 27 consecutive points. That was bad. Dallas lost 49-38, which wasn’t as bad as it could have been considering Cleveland had 31 points at halftime, the franchise’s largest total at half since 1991. This loss was embarrassing, but when you remember it was to the Browns, it becomes humiliating.

The frustrating part for Cowboys fans is that the offense looks great. Quarterback Dak Prescott had 502 passing yards on Sunday. He is the first quarterback to throw for more than 450 yards in consecutive games, and he has hit career highs in back-to-back weeks. But Dak also became just the third quarterback in NFL history to throw for 500 or more yards and four touchdowns in a game and lose. As Dak said after the game, “I’d give all those yards back for a different record.”

But Prescott isn’t the one giving yards back—that would be the defense, which has been a disaster. The Cowboys have allowed 36.5 points per game this season, the most in franchise history through four games. That figure is even worse than what Dallas let up when the team went 0-11-1 as an expansion franchise in 1960.

“What I don’t like is the pattern of the four games,” head coach Mike McCarthy said on Sunday. “The points are outrageous, time of possession is totally lopsided, and we’re minus-7 in the turnover ratio. Not a winning formula.” Or, in the words of defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, “I call the shit soft.”

Dallas’s softening on defense is a result of some unfortunate injuries—and a lack of money. Prescott has the highest cap hit of any quarterback this season; running back Ezekiel Elliott has the third-highest cap hit of any running back; and next year, Amari Cooper will have the second-highest cap hit of any wide receiver (not to mention the team still has to give Prescott a long-term contract). To fund this, Dallas decided to let top cornerback Byron Jones leave for Miami in free agency this offseason. So when injuries put the Cowboys’ other top cornerbacks, Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown, on IR, the team’s backups were caught flat-footed. Inside linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee are on injured reserve too, and Dallas’s healthy linebacker, Jaylon Smith, has played poorly. Worse, the players the Cowboys are paying on defense have been bad. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who will have the position’s second-highest cap hit next season ($25 million), ranked 50th in Pro Football Focus’s pass pressure grading through three games.

Without good pass rush or pass coverage, Dallas has been shredded through the air. Russell Wilson threw for 315 yards and five touchdowns against this group in Week 3, and Matt Ryan threw for four touchdown passes in Week 2. Shoddy pass defense is expected without the team’s top three cornerbacks from 2019, but the flabbergasting part is that somehow, the run defense might be worse. The Cowboys gave up 307 rushing yards (7.7 yards per carry) to Cleveland on Sunday, the worst mark in Dallas history. And that figure happened despite starting running back Nick Chubb injuring his knee in the first half and not returning.

All that ineptitude is a shame considering the talent on the other side of the ball. Dallas’s offense might be the best in the NFC. Rookie receiver CeeDee Lamb has 309 receiving yards in four games, one of the highest marks for a rookie over the past decade, and tight end Dalton Schultz has emerged as a legitimate replacement for the injured Blake Jarwin. The passing game is making up for the rushing: Elliott has just one carry of more than 15 yards this season, but he fumbled on that run. Prescott, not Elliott, is the engine of this offense, which is great for Dallas—except he is the one piece the Cowboys have managed not to extend to a long-term deal. On the bright side, the Cowboys host the Giants next week, and New York’s offensive coordinator is none other than former Dallas coach Jason Garrett. But if Garrett’s offense shreds the Cowboys defense, expect Jerry Jones to have an existential crisis.

Philadelphia Eagles (1-2-1)

A blue moon is when there are two full moons in the same month. A football blue moon is when a team is in first place in its division despite winning just one game in a month. The Eagles sit atop the NFC East after beating an injured San Francisco team 25-20 on Sunday Night Football, a win that came despite Carson Wentz’s inability to hit the floor if he fell out of bed.

Admittedly, injuries have made things look uglier than they are for this team. The offensive line is in shambles. Right guard Brandon Brooks, PFF’s highest-rated guard in 2019, and left tackle Andre Dillard, the team’s 2019 first-round pick, are both out for the season. Jason Peters, a longtime Philly lineman who was re-signed to replace Brooks and Dillard, is also on injured reserve. So is starting left guard Isaac Seumalo. Right tackle Lane Johnson has been dealing with an ankle injury that has flexed him in and out of the lineup. The only lineman Philadelphia intended to start this season who is still healthy and playing is center Jason Kelce.

The Eagles’ receiving situation isn’t any better. Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, rookie first-rounder Jalen Reagor, and tight end Dallas Goedert are all injured or on injured reserve, leaving Philly with tight end Zach Ertz and a who’s who of who? It is in many ways a repeat of last year, when Philadelphia was so desperate for pass catchers the team signed Greg Ward, who was last seen playing in the AAF. This season, Ward is the most experienced receiver the Eagles have left. Philadelphia is leaning on Ward, 2019 sixth-rounder Travis Fulgham (who caught a 42-yard touchdown on Sunday), and fifth-round rookie John Hightower. The Eagles are now the only NFL team with 10 different wide receivers who have run 50 or more routes since the beginning of 2019.

With all that chaos, you’d think Eagles fans would be blaming injuries for their woes, not their quarterback. Nope. The anti-Wentz fervor in Philly is so high that the Sunday Night Football broadcast aired local radio call-ins to explain the sentiment, including one caller who said Wentz is “like a golfer with the yips.”

Consider the Dak Prescott vs. Carson Wentz debate over. Yes, Wentz played decently enough on Sunday to get the win, but he’s been a problem throughout the season. Wentz is straight-up missing open receivers; he threw exactly seven picks in each of the last three seasons, but has already thrown seven in 2020. It is as if the injuries around Wentz exacerbate his worst tendency, which is to play heroball.

Yet time is a flat circle. Just like last year, a banged-up Eagles team has face-planted its way into first place because of Dallas’s ineptitude. Now it looks like these two teams will be fighting for a playoff spot that the rest of the league will mock. Dallas and Philly play each other for the first time in Week 8, which comes one day after a Halloween Blue Moon. Probably not a coincidence—and that game may be a horror show.

Washington Football Team (1-3)

Washington is a half game out of first place and a half game out of a top five draft pick. It’s a wild position for a team that came into this season trying to decide whether Dwayne Haskins will be its franchise quarterback. He has looked much better this season than he did during his rookie year, with a far greater understanding of his responsibilities. Still, Haskins is young, and during Washington’s 31-17 loss to the Ravens on Sunday, head coach Ron Rivera decided to issue his quarterback a pop quiz. Leading into the game, offensive coordinator Scott Turner had told Haskins to prioritize short passes instead of deep shots. That’s a good idea—through three games, Haskins led the NFL in “bad” or off target throws, according to Pro-Football-Reference, as well as bad throw percentage. For most of the game, Haskins did throw underneath passes to get first downs. But then came Rivera’s quiz. Fourth-and-goal from the 13-yard line in the fourth quarter: Does Haskins know when to break the rules?

“I wanted to see what would happen,” Rivera said after the game. “I really did … it was fourth down. The ball’s got to go into the end zone. Or it’s got to be put in a position where it can get into the end zone.”

Instead, Haskins threw a checkdown pass that did not get anywhere near the end zone. Quiz failed. It was the latest sign of a lack of situational awareness for one of the league’s youngest and most inexperienced quarterbacks. Not only did Haskins play just one season as a starter at Ohio State, but the Buckeyes blew out most of their opponents. Between Haskins’s starts in high school and college, he could count the number of games in which the outcome was decided in the final minutes on one hand. But Haskins is being asked to learn on the fly in one of the most bizarre situations in the league.

In July, 17 women told The Washington Post that higher-ups in the Washington organization fostered a culture of sexual harassment. Washington soon launched an investigation into the reports of misconduct, with the NFL taking over the investigation in September. In August, Rivera revealed that he had been diagnosed with skin cancer. Rivera has been coaching Washington while undergoing chemotherapy, which he says will last three more weeks. That is quite the situation for Haskins to be involved with at just 23 years old.

Haskins isn’t doing it alone. Washington does have two other exciting players on offense. Rookie running back Antonio Gibson already looks like one of the most elusive players at the position, tying for the league lead with 12 broken tackles. And second-year wide receiver Terry McLaurin is a star in the making. He is one of just 13 receivers with more than 1,300 receiving yards in his first 18 games. The defense also has plenty of talent, with five first-round picks on the defensive line, including defensive end Chase Young, who missed Sunday’s game with a groin injury. In a season of sloppiness and record-breaking scoring, Washington’s defensive talent is a zag as every other team zigs. It might be enough to cut against the grain of a weak division, especially since the team’s lone win has come against the Eagles. Rivera leading this team to a playoff spot would be a great story, but the overwhelming incompetence of this organization seems to be too big a hurdle to outrun Dallas and Philadelphia.

New York Giants (0-4)

Odell Beckham Jr. had as many touchdowns on Sunday (three) as the Giants have recorded this entire season. He also earned more rushing yards on two carries against the Cowboys (73) than any Giants running back has in total this season. Those are just the latest kicks to the teeth for a New York team that has seen flashes of improvement from every position group, but never at the same time. When quarterback Daniel Jones makes a good read and throw, the ball is dropped. When the receivers get wide open, Jones overthrows them or gets sacked.

The Giants have scored just 47 points this season, the fewest in the NFL and fewer than Cleveland scored against Dallas on Sunday (are you sensing a theme yet?). Jones has had a few great moments overshadowed by a consistent lack of awareness—he’s fumbled a ridiculous 21 times in 17 career games. The nicest thing to say about the Giants is that they are not the worst team in their own building—that distinction belongs to the Jets. But while the Giants are not the worst team in the Meadowlands, they are likely the second-worst NFL team in America. In fact, since the beginning of 2017, the Giants have the worst overall record—and that includes the Browns going 0-16.

The first four games of their season were always expected to be hard: The Steelers, 49ers, Bears, and Rams have four of the toughest defenses the Giants offense could face all season, and it is not surprising the Giants went 0-4 in that stretch. But New York was within a touchdown in the fourth quarter in three of those four weeks, and now five of the next six Giants games come against NFC East opponents. A hot streak could vault this improbable team into contention for the division. Perhaps that is the ending to 2020 all of us deserve.

If that is going to happen, it will have to start next week. The Giants play the Cowboys in Week 5, and Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett returns to Dallas. Garrett was always a master of beating Dallas even when the Cowboys had more talent, so it seems he has been preparing for this moment his entire career.