Welcome to the wacky NFC East, where .500 is good enough for first

ByDan Graziano ESPN logo
Monday, October 8, 2018

HOUSTON -- Ah, the good old NFC East, where no one ever knows anything and sometimes no one appears to be very good.

Four storied teams, one winning record between them, and by midnight ET that number will drop to zero unless the Washington Redskins can pull off a Monday Night Football upset in New Orleans.

The Dallas Cowboys could have been 3-2 after Sunday night's game here against the Houston Texans if they'd been able to make a couple of big plays in the passing game. The defending champion Philadelphia Eagles could have been 3-2 if they'd been able to win a home game against the team they beat by 31 in the NFC Championship Game a little more than eight months ago. Even the woebegone New York Giants could have climbed to within a game of .500 if not for Carolina hitting a 63-yard field goal on them as time ran out.

But those are all "ifs," and none of them came in, so every NFC East team that played Sunday lost and is under .500 five weeks into the season.

The exception is Washington, which has a chance to seize control of this thing Monday night. It's a touchdown underdog on a night when Saints QB Drew Brees is poised to break the NFL's career passing yardage record, but hey, it's playing on 14 days of rest and ranks first in the league in total defense.

Yeah, look it up. No one has allowed fewer yards per game than Washington -- not after Jacksonville and Baltimore each coughed up 400-plus Sunday afternoon to Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield, respectively.

Washington has that weird Week 2 loss to Indianapolis and victories over Arizona and Green Bay. The Saints are by far their toughest test yet, and the odds are that the Redskins will lose, but the ball isn't round and sometimes it bounces funny. Jay Gruden's bunch certainly knows it has a big opportunity to go up a game and a half on the rest of the NFC East before playing any of the division's other three teams. And no one else seems to have it together, even a little.

The Giants? They fought back against Carolina. Jeez, they scored 30 points in a game for the first time since Tom Coughlin was their coach. You force a 63-yard field goal attempt with no time left on the clock, you have to feel like you've got the thing won. But nothing has gone right for the Giants for quite a while now.

They've lost a stunning 18 of their past 22 games starting with that playoff loss in Green Bay in January 2017. To say some of the high-profile relationships in the locker room are strained might be putting it mildly. And the Giants are already 0-1 in head-to-head division play thanks to their Week 2 loss in Dallas.

And yet, as poorly as things have gone for them, the G-Men will be only a game and a half out of first place if Washington loses the Monday night game. Because it's the NFC East, and no one knows anything.

The Eagles were supposed to roll this thing. No team has repeated as NFC East champs since Philly did it in 2003 and 2004, but it was pretty hard in August to find anyone picking anybody else to win this division. If you can win the Super Bowl with your backup quarterback, what's so hard about beating out these three teams over a full season once you get your starter back, right?

But Carson Wentz's return hasn't been the Mummers Parade victory lap everyone expected it to be. Wentz's numbers are fine, but he has been sacked 12 times in his three games back, and the Eagles' offense seems to lack the dynamic element it had last year before Wentz's knee injury ended his MVP run.

The champs are a good bet to get better, but the schedule doesn't do them any favors. They go on the road to play those angry Giants in a short-week Thursday night game and still have road games against the Saints and Rams, a London game against the Jaguars and all six of their division games still ahead of them. The Eagles may well repeat as division champs, but they'd have to run the table to repeat last year's 13-3 record.

This stuff isn't easy. Not in the NFC East.

Just ask the Cowboys. They were 13-3 just two years ago but can't seem to rekindle things either. Sunday night in Houston, they played like a boxer with his gloves up in front of his face, just trying to get to the final bell. Houston held them under 100 rushing yards, which is pretty much an automatic loss for Dallas.

And while Dak Prescott cleared 200 passing yards for the second straight week, it's only the fourth time he has done that in his past 13 games. The Cowboys are calling their passing game a work in progress, but the "progress" part seems lacking at this point.

"You look across the league, teams are throwing the ball and being very productive at it," Cowboys wideout Allen Hurns said after the game. "You try not to compare yourself to others, but we need to start making the most of our opportunities."

"The time is now," Prescott said. "You can't sit around and bank on that in this league, or else you lose games like we've been doing. We've got to get it together and get it together fast."

Thing is, in the NFC East, that might not be the case. The Cowboys might have time, as they're the only team so far with a head-to-head division win. They play very good defense -- DeAndre Hopkins' game-clinching 49-yard jigsaw play in overtime notwithstanding. They usually run the ball well. As long as they don't turn it over, they're going to be in pretty much all of their games.

And if someone does emerge as a consistent, reliable threat in the receiver group, there's some upside to a team that can keep games under control the way they do. Those are more "ifs," but it's not as though anyone in front of them is 5-0, 4-1 or even 3-2. Unless Washington upsets Brees & Co. on Monday, 2-3 is far from cooked in the good old NFC East.

It might not always be pretty, but the NFC East always seems to keep things interesting. I don't know who's going to win it, but neither do you and neither does anyone who plays or coaches in it. Round about mid-October, that's par for the course.

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