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The NFC East is doing great in spite of themselves

Everyone is good, everyone is flawed

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The NFC East is the best division in football. If the playoffs started today—which would be weird because it’s a Friday in December—every team in it would be in the playoffs. That may not last when the season ends, Seattle is poised to overtake whoever finishes fourth in the division and possibly the third place team as well.

But for now, everyone in the NFC is having a good season. Except they’re not. They’re all flawed, potentially fatally. But if they can fix them, it could boost them to a title. Well, some of them. Two of them to be precise. Hopefully only one.

Eagles (10-1)

Overperforming: Takeaways.

The Eagles defense has a takeaway in every game this season, which is simply unsustainable. Even the 16-0 Patriots didn’t do that, or the 1985 Bears. And the Eagles have multiple takeaways in seven games. When the turnovers don’t happen, can this team still find a way to win?

We don’t have to look far for a cautionary tale. Last season the Cowboys seemingly lived and died on turnovers, getting a takeaway in 14 games, and multiple in 12 games. In those games with multiple takeaways, they were 10-2 with a +163 point differential. In their six games with one or fewer, they were 2-4 with a point differential of +3, -22 if you don’t count the blowout of the Eagles practice squad in Week 18. One of those losses was in the playoffs.

The Eagles do not have that going for them. In their four games with only one takeaway–all wins–their point differential is +23 points, but in their seven games with multiple takeaways their point differential is only +64. There’s not a lot of breathing room in those games. There is some context to be had in those games, when given a chance to run up a score the Eagles have instead run the ball and chewed up clock, Jalen Hurts has just 42 pass attempts in the 4th quarter this season.

There is reason to think the Eagles’ eventual regression on turnovers won’t be severe. The Eagles lead the league with 22 takeaways. Entering last night’s game, the Bills and Ravens are next with 20, and the Seahawks are fourth with 19, all with 11 games played. The Eagles lead the league in interception rate and have a better pressure and hurry rate than the trio behind them on turnovers, their ability to force QBs into mistakes has been good and should continue to be so. Their seven fumbles recovered are good but not great, they haven’t been extremely fortunate in fumble luck the way that say, the Giants have with their 10 fumbles recovered but only 4 interceptions.

But all it takes is one game where the well dries up for it to be a problem. If that’s in January, it could be game and season over.

Underperforming: Special teams.

Or is it? It’s easy to say that coverage teams have been underperforming, but perhaps they’re simply bad?

Special teams were mediocre or worse under Doug Pederson, and have been below average under Nick Sirianni. The team hasn’t had the special teams position player cornerstone since Chris Maragos. It’s easy to blame coaching, and coaching isn’t absolved of anything when you’re as bad on coverage as the Eagles are, but you can only work with the players you have.

The Eagles top special teams players by snap counts include K’Von Wallace, who lost his spot on the safety depth chart to an undrafted free agent and is likely to not be on the team next year; Nakobe Dean and Kyron Johnson, who are rookies; Zach Pascal, who is playing more special teams snaps per game than he has ever had in his career; and Shaun Bradley and Zech McPhearson are also on track for career highs in special teams playing time. Since Howie Roseman’s return to power in 2016 special teams have been a low priority. They’re getting what they paid for this year.

Biggest game left on the schedule: The Cowboys on Christmas Eve. In purely technical terms, the Eagles do not need to win this game. With the Titans, Giants, and Bears before it they might have the division wrapped up before kickoff; and with the Saints and Giants after it, they’ll have excellent chances to win the division even with a loss to Dallas.

But what a gut punch a loss to Dallas would be. It would make Cowboys, whose lead-in to that game is the Colts, Texans, and Jaguars, the surging team to beat, and the Eagles appear as frauds.

*Jim Mora voice* Playoffs?!?! The team will clinch a playoff spot with their next win. We are in Super Bowl or Bust territory.

RELATED CONTENT: Every week, Brandon Lee Gowton from Bleeding Green Nation and RJ Ochoa from Blogging The Boys get together to talk about the NFL’s most important division on The NFC East Mixtape. Subscribe to BGN’s podcast feed to check out the latest episode:

You can also watch the episode by subscribing to BGN’s YouTube channel:

Cowboys (8-3)

Overperforming: Dak Prescott in the 2nd half.

Underperforming: Dak Prescott in the 1st half.

In the first half of games, Dak Prescott has flat out stunk. He is 24th in yards per attempt, 27th in passer rating, and has the worst interception rate in the first half. It’s almost like starting Zach Wilson.

Fortunately for the Cowboys he’s been pretty much flawless in the second half. He’s 1st in passer rating, 2nd in yards per attempt, 3rd in touchdown percentage, and has yet to throw an interception. Those are MVP numbers.

Nobody bails themselves out of their own hole like Dak Prescott has this year. Down the stretch and in the playoffs, which half will come back to Earth? If it’s the former and Prescott is simply mediocre to start games, the Cowboys might be Super Bowl winners. If it’s the latter and MVP caliber production falls to Pro Bowl alternate level, they’re one and done in the playoffs again.

Biggest game left on the schedule: The Eagles on Christmas Eve. Until they’re actually in the Super Bowl, this game is their Super Bowl.

*Jim Mora voice* Playoffs?!?! It’s Super Bowl or bust for the Cowboys too. Only three teams have a better record than Dallas, only one has a better point differential.

Giants (7-4)

Overperforming: The entire team, all year long.

The Giants can’t pass the ball, only the Broncos and Steelers have fewer passing TDs. They can run the ball, Saquon Barkley is having a great year; but he’s also on pace to log 400 touches, his career high is 352 and that was four years ago. The defense is mediocre at best, the few things they are good at (completion percentage 3rd, TD% 6th) are offset by being terrible at other corresponding events (yards per completion 7th worst, INT% 3rd worst).

This is the makeup of a 4-7 team, not a 7-4 one.

Underperforming: Nothing. Which is a problem.

It’s hard for a team to suddenly improve during the season, much less in December, but it can happen. The usual form of this is that it turns out that an injury replacement is better than the player he was replacing, or a coaching staff finally comes to their senses that using or not using a player isn’t working.

These aren’t options for the Giants as they’ve already had to run through their roster. The fifth most used player on offense has played 82% of snaps, the sixth most used player is at 54%. On defense, 18 players have played at least 25% of snaps, the Eagles have 15, the Cowboys 16, the Commanders 17.

There’s no one waiting on the bench to get their shot for the Giants, they’ve already gotten it. The only play the Giants have left, either by choice or by chance, is for Tyrod Taylor to replace Daniel Jones. Tyrod Taylor is not turning this ship around.

There is a third way for a team to improve. They simply get lucky. That also isn’t happening for this Giants team. They are already 7-2 in one score games. Everything about this team being in a playoff position has been smoke and mirrors, and the supply chain has run out.

Biggest game left on the schedule: The Commanders, twice.

*Jim Mora voice* Playoffs?!?! To complete the quote, “I just hope this team can win a game.” Brian Daboll might feel the same.

The rest of their schedule is the Commanders twice, with the Eagles in between those games, then the Vikings, Colts, and Eagles again.

Win both games against the Commanders and the Giants are probably in the playoffs at the expense of Washington. However, and this is where it gets fun, it is possible that the Giants win both those, lose the rest of their games to finish 9-8, and miss out to a 10-7 Commanders team that wins out the rest of the season.

That’s not likely to happen though, the remainder of the Giants schedule is the Colts, who stink, and the Eagles might wrap up every important player in bubble tape in Week 18 and hand the Giants an easy game. Which would be a funny reversal from 2020 when the Giants–who won 6 games that season–complained about the Eagles tanking against Washington to keep the Giants out of the playoffs. This season it could very easily be the Eagles giving away a game to keep the Giants in the playoffs over Washington. Oh what fun that might be.

Anyway, that’s four potential winnable games for a team on the verge of freefall.

Commanders (7-5)

Overperforming: Clock management.

The Commanders are this year’s edition of the team ball controlling and clawing their way to the final playoff spot. It worked for the Eagles last year.

Washington leads the league in time of possession, which is one reason why they haven’t given up more than 21 points since Week 4. It is difficult for the other team to put up a lot of points when they spend 32 minutes without it. It’s working for them, unlike their offense.

In their last eight games Washington is averaging 20 points a game, which has actually improved their season average. This team does not trust its QB. In as many games as Carson Wentz, Taylor Heinicke has 61 fewer passing attempts, and is averaging fewer attempts per game than Daniel Jones, Jalen Hurts, and Lamar Jackson.

Nor should they trust Heinicke, who has just 7 TDs but 5 INTs in his six games. The Commanders have cleared 120 rushing yards in seven of their last nine games, but have doubled that in the air only twice in that span. In their first five games, the Commanders lost the turnover battle in every game, they went 1-4. Since then they’ve at least gone even in turnovers in every game, and are 6-1.

This strategy will get a team through a few months of the season, but it’s a winning formula for the holiday season.

Underperforming: Their impersonation of the 2021 Eagles.

The Commanders are following a similar modus operandi as the 2021 Eagles, but don’t have the flair. The Eagles put away bad teams, winning 32-6, 44-6, 40-29, 33-18, and 34-10. The Commanders have rolled over the scoreboard to the 30s once, and that was thanks to an end of game desperation play. They haven’t earned a win on offense.

Biggest game left on the schedule: The Giants, twice.

That’s right, the biggest game of the season for every NFC East team is against an NFC East team. That’s the way it should be.

*Jim Mora voice* Playoffs?!?! Could happen.

The Commanders play the Giants in back to back games with their bye in between, then face the 49ers on the road, then host the Browns and Cowboys. The Commanders haven’t had an easy win all season, and don’t look to have one the rest of the way. This is an above average team in the NFL. What a season.

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