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NFC East Preview: Eagles vs. Cowboys and Two Also-Rans

Philly and Dallas are set to battle for the division title again, while the Giants and Washington are just looking to get on the right track.

The NFL is rife with parity. The NFC East is not. No other division has such a stark contrast between the haves and have-nots: The Eagles and Cowboys enter the year with Super Bowl aspirations, while the Giants and Washington remain in rebuild mode.

But while this season will repeat last year’s two-team race, neither Philadelphia nor Dallas will again be hovering around the .500 mark in late December. The Eagles limped through the second half of 2019 as Carson Wentz carried an injury-riddled receiving corps that was, if not the league’s worst, at least its slowest. But this year Philly will have a veritable 4x100 relay of new receivers (even after actual Olympic track star Marquise Goodwin opted out). Philly drafted speedsters Jalen Reagor (first round) and John Hightower (fifth) and expect to get back a healthy DeSean Jackson. Meanwhile, the defense has a new No. 1 cornerback in free agent Darius Slay, who will look even better in Philadelphia than he did behind the Lions’ nonexistent pass rush.

In Dallas, Mike McCarthy takes over as coach after another season in which the record (8-8) was less than the sum of the team’s parts. McCarthy will lean on offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, a holdover from Garrett’s staff, to get another big year out of quarterback Dak Prescott. The receiving corps should be even stronger, with first-round pick CeeDee Lamb joining 1,000-yard receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. Cooper, who had big numbers but watched from the sideline as the final drive in a must-win game at Philadelphia came up short, must stay healthy and establish himself as a true No. 1 receiver. But throw in RB Ezekiel Elliott and a line strong enough to withstand the retirement of center Travis Frederick, and the offense should be one of the NFL’s best. The defense, though, will have to weather a major transition. McCarthy brought in veteran defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, whose schemes are notably complex, to run a unit that lost top cornerback Byron Jones and pass rusher Robert Quinn in free agency.

As for the also-rans, both have new coaches—Bill Belichick disciple Joe Judge in New York and longtime Panthers coach Ron Rivera in Washington—and second-year quarterbacks. Daniel Jones is ahead of fellow 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins in Washington, and the new Giants offensive coordinator, ex-Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, will now oversee his development. New York’s continued investment in the offensive line (including the fourth pick, tackle Andrew Thomas from Georgia) and the presence of RB Saquon Barkley means the Giants should score points. But Jones’s tendency to hang in the pocket for too long, too often resulting in strip-sacks, plus a defense that lacks identity, caps their upside.

In Washington, a green Haskins and a shortage of passing-game weapons beyond Terry McLaurin means that the offense will rely on a rushing attack led by Adrian Peterson. Defensive end Chase Young, the draft’s No. 2 overall pick, adds to an already potent pass rush, but the team has questions at linebacker and in the secondary. When Washington does win, it will win ugly.

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BEST-CASE SCENARIO: All the additions at receiver rejuvenate the downfield passing game, and Wentz turns in an MVP-caliber season. Slay shuts down opponents’ No. 1 receivers while another free-agent addition, DT Javon Hargrave, adds juice to the front four as the Eagles look a lot like the 2017 edition.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The injury bug strikes again. Wentz goes down as he did in 2017 and ’18, and second-round selection Jalen Hurts isn’t ready for prime time. The pass rush—especially DE Brandon Graham, 32, and DT Fletcher Cox, 29—shows its age, and a blitz-heavy scheme allows too many big plays. In the competitive NFC, Philly just misses the playoffs.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO: With the addition of Lamb and the emergence of a healthy (and consistent) Cooper, Prescott delivers MVP-level numbers. Nolan’s system generates a pass rush through his creative blitz packages, and Demarcus Lawrence delivers a Defensive Player of the Year-type campaign as the Cowboys take the division.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The offense once again puts up gaudy stats but (also once again) shrinks at the biggest moments. While Lawrence continues to dominate, the changes on a defense that is also replacing key starters are too much to handle, especially with the truncated offseason. McCarthy finds himself on the hot seat after his first season.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Jones takes the next step in his sophomore season under Garrett, and a balanced and efficient offense takes some of the heat off the defense. Meanwhile, a smoke-and-mirrors approach by that D allows them to overachieve, making the Giants a tough out. They fall short of the playoffs but the 8-8 campaign inspires confidence.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Jones, who had 18 fumbles in 13 games last season, breaks the NFL record of 23 this year. The turnover margin is too much to overcome for a team whose offense lacks big-play weapons at receiver and whose defense that struggles to get stops. GM Dave Gettleman’s seat is scorching come Christmastime.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Rivera brings the franchise a needed sense of stability, and Young turns in a Defensive Player of the Year–type season as a rookie, as the pass rush covers up for a shaky cornerbacking group. Peterson leads a ball-control offense, taking the pressure off Haskins and keeping opposing offenses off the field.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Washington’s offense ranks in the bottom five of every major category. The defense has its moments, but with too many holes of its own, it is not strong enough to carry the team. Washington decides to scrap its latest QB plan and start anew (again)—they miss out on the No. 1 overall pick and therefore a chance for Trevor Lawrence, but the front office will spend draft season debating North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Ohio State’s Justin Fields.