Cowboys should be the favorite... for now

Cowboys should be the favorite... for now

July 25, 2017 3:01 AM
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of eight NFL division previews for the 2017-18 season.

Based on cumulative records last year, the NFC East was the kingpin of the league at 15 games over .500, producing a wild card for the first time in seven years (NY Giants 11-5) and the top seed in the conference (Dallas 13-3).

The last time the East was this formidable was in 2007, when it was at +16 with three teams making the postseason and the Giants upsetting the 18-0 New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

But in this division, expect the unexpected.

From 2012 to 2015, the team with the longest division odds wound up as champ – first Washington (12-1), then Philadelphia (7-2), followed by Dallas (4-1) and then the Redskins again (15-1). No other division had even one such long-shot winner the past five seasons.

And three times from 2005-2011, an odds-on favorite was an also-ran and missed the playoffs. In four of the past five years, a team went from worst to first, including last year’s Cowboys. If that’s the case again this year, watch out for the Eagles.

It will be hard for a wild card to emerge this year as East teams will face all the squads from the AFC West, including powerhouses Oakland and Kansas City as well as Seattle and Arizona from the NFC West.

Here’s how the NFC East should shake out. The odds were provided by the Westgate Las Vegas.

Dallas (6-5 div; 8-1 SB): The Cowboys, behind a pair of rookies, QB Dak Prescott and rushing champ Ezekiel Elliott plus a ballyhooed OL rebounded from an injury-plagued 2015 season (4-12) to become a power. If Dallas is to earn loop honors this year it will be the first back-to-back titlist in the East since Philly in 2003-04.

Making matters difficult for coach Jason Garrett is having to replace two of the top three cornerbacks, a strong safety and two members of the front four who were lost in the offseason. Since the unit ranked only 14th in yards yielded last year, more mediocrity is in the offing. But with standout LB Sean Lee back, the Cowboys have a fighting chance to hold their own. The offensive line has three Pro Bowlers, but trouble lurks if plodding Byron Bell is needed at either tackle spot.

Note: The Cowboys will play a league-high four games against teams on short rest off Monday Night games.

Philadelphia (7-2, 35-1): The Eagles had wild swings of success and disappointment last year behind rookie QB Carson Wentz and first-year coach Doug Pederson, going 7-9. But in three of their victories they gave eventual division winners their most lopsided loss of the season – Pittsburgh 34-3, Atlanta 24-15 and Dallas 27-13. They also stifled a Vikings team that was 5-0 at the time.

In the offseason the Eagles added veteran WRs Alshon Jeffery from Chicago and Torrey Smith from San Fran, in addition to grabbing bulldozing ex-Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount. All this and having one of the best offensive lines in football.

On defense last year, the unit’s numbers improved behind first-year DC Jim Schwartz, whose group yielded 44.6 fewer yards per game and 11 fewer TDs than in 2015. Philly also held NFL MVP quarterback Matt Ryan to his worst performance of the season. That said the offense had 170 fewer snaps than the year before and the defense gave up 5.61 yards a play, the worst rate in franchise history.

Note: The Eagles were one of five teams to open at 3-0 last season and one of four that didn’t make the playoffs.

NY Giants (12-5, 20-1): Defense is what helped New York improve by five victories under first-year field boss Ben McAdoo last year. The unit not only gave up 80.6 fewer yards than its last-place showing in 2015, but saw foes score a league-low 25 TDs after getting 46 the year before.

Offensively, Giants QB Eli Manning, the 22nd-rated passer in the league last year, had a pedestrian year with 26 TD throws and 16 interceptions, but the team gave him some extra weapons in the offseason. In addition to having Odell Beckham Jr., the G-Men brought over ex-Bronco/Dolphin/Bear/Jet WR Brandon Marshall, and rookie TE Evan Engram also should help. Gone is leading rusher Rashad Jennings, but NY is counting on Paul Perkins to pick up the slack. The O-line is particularly weak at tackle.

Note: New York will play a league-high four games against teams off a bye after never having to do so more than once the previous 15 seasons. One will come against Kansas City and coach Andy Reid, whose record is 16-2 after a midseason break,

Washington (6-1, 60-1): Most of the offseason hoopla was about the contract wrangling with quarterback Kirk “Kurt” Cousins. Considering Cousins had his best three games against bottom-10 defenses last year and has gone 2-8 vs. teams that qualified for the playoffs in the past two seasons, the Redskins probably were wise to keep him at arm’s length on a long-term deal until he proves he can win big-time games.

Meanwhile, Washington will be working with two new coordinators and without its two 1,000-yard receivers from last year, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson. That’s got to hurt. Defensively, the Redskins yielded 4.5 yards a rush, sixth worst in the NFL in 2016. That likely will remain a problem.

Note: Washington’s final four foes on the sked all had defensive passer ratings in the top 10 last season. In Weeks 16 and 17 they face Denver (No. 1 in 2016) and the Giants (No. 2).

Next week: AFC North

Bob Christ has been forecasting NFL games for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in newspapers from coast to coast in Canada and the U.S. Email: BobChrist@GamingToday.com