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NFC Beast report: Does anybody want to win this division?

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No NFC East team seems to want to win the crown.

Dallas Cowboys v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

So, we all know the Cowboys had a bad night Sunday, losing for the third time in five games. The thing is, the team’s odds of winning the NFC East actually increased (according to Football Outsiders).

That’s because all of the Cowboys’ division rivals also lost in week five. This leaves the NFC Least in a sad state of affairs. Consider:

  • A .500 team (that just got waxed by a 43-19 score) leads the division.
  • The division’s overall record is 7-12. That’s a 37% winning percentage, which would translate to less than six wins for a team over 16 games.
  • None of the four teams has scored more points than their opponents.
  • No other division has more than two teams with a negative point differential, for comparison.

And it’s not like the division was going up against a bunch of NFL titans. The NFC East’s four opponents headed into week five with a collective 11-10 record and emerged with a collective 15-10 record. It was a collectively embarrassing effort. Here are the averages from the four games:

In short, it’s really ugly right now. Which is terrific for Cowboys’ fans. Generally a 2-3 record after five games means having to make up multiple games to catch the division leader. Not so for the NFC East teams.

PLAYOFF ODDS

Everything about the above table just screams mediocrity. Outside of the Giants, these aren’t terrible numbers, they’re just not very good. Here’s Football Outsider’s odds for each team for winning the division, earning a wild card spot, making the playoffs and earning a one-six conference playoff seed:

As you can see, Washington, Dallas and Philadelphia all have relatively similar odds of winning the division (Washington is slightly higher). But the teams combined odds of earning a first-round bye is only eleven percent. That’s bad.

The team’s also have only a combined 21% likelihood of earning a wild card spot - meaning if you don’t win the division you’re not likely making the playoffs. Here’s how those wild card odds have changed since week one:

We can also see how each team’s odds of winning the division have changed since week one:

Both the Eagles and the Cowboys have declined significantly while both the Redskins and even the Giants (despite a 1-4 record) have seen their odds improve. That’s remarkable and just more evidence of a truly bad division.

Offensive and Defensive Rankings

Offensively the division is a mess. All four teams rank in the bottom ten of the league in points scored and in the bottom 13 of the league in yards. The Giants and Redskins add turnover problems to their offensive woes. If you’re looking for high quality offensive football you need to look outside the NFC East.

A big reason for that is the sad state of the division’s quarterbacks. You could argue Dallas, Washington and New York each have bad short-term QB situations with no plan for the future. Eli Manning and Alex Smith are old and won’t be getting better any time soon. Barring a dramatic turnaround, Dak Prescott won’t be a starting NFL quarterback soon. Only the Eagles have a quarterback they know will be there for the next several years. Ugh.

Defensively things are better but they’re not great. Dallas pretty well epitomizes the problem: they do well in terms of points and yards surrendered but they’re terrible at generating turnovers. The teams have combined to generate only 21 turnovers in a combined 19 games, barely one per game.

All four teams rank in the top twelve of the league in yards allowed, showing they’re able to stop teams. Combine the poor offenses and much better defenses and anyone watching NFC East games should expect some ugly, low-scoring games.

TEAM OUTLOOKS

Philadelphia Eagles

Despite the team’s 2-3 start I would still make the Eagles the favorite to win the division. Mostly because they still have the best roster and the best quarterback situation. But this isn’t the same team as last season and “best” in the NFC East simply mean better than mediocre.

The offensive line, which was the best in the league last year, has been a problem spot. Carson Wentz has been sacked twelve times in three games. The Eagles rank 27th in rushing yards per attempt. Losing Jay Ajayi for the season didn’t help. The Eagles simply aren’t moving the ball or scoring points at the same rate as last year.

Defensively they’re giving up more yards and aren’t generating turnovers (dropping from fourth last season to 24th this season). The front seven is still very strong but the secondary has been exposed numerous times.

Reason for optimism: if you watch the Eagles they keep shooting themselves in the foot with untimely drops, penalties and boneheaded plays. You don’t have to squint too hard to see them moving from mediocre to good. They face a tough schedule though (six division games as well as the Panthers, Saints, Jaguars, Rams and Texans). All those who believed the Eagles 2018 season began a sustained period of domination have seen that’s extremely hard in the NFL.

Dallas Cowboys

It’s hard to believe that a year ago the Cowboys also sat at 2-3 but looked nothing like the current version. The 2017 version had come off consecutive losses to the Rams and Packers despite the offense being an unstoppable juggernaut. Dallas combined for 61 points and 848 yards of offense, which generally will win you many games. But the defense simply couldn’t stop the opponent.

Now it’s the opposite. The defense is giving up an average of only 19 points, which is fifth in the league. Dallas has been able to either limit teams from moving the ball or has been extremely stingy in the red zone. However, there’s worrying signs on the defensive side of the ball:

  • The defensive line was touted as a potentially dominant unit. Yet against highly suspect offensive lines the team has twice (Seattle and Houston) barely been able to get to the QB and allowed multiple big plays in the passing game.
  • Opposing quarterbacks are again slicing up a vulnerable secondary. Deshaun Watson and Matthew Stafford combined for 660 yards passing the last two weeks. Opposing quarterbacks now have a 101.3 quarterback rating for the season. You’re not a top ten defense while giving up a passer rating over 100, sorry.

Offensively things are worse, much, much worse. Somehow combining marginal talent at QB, WR and TE with an unimaginative, predictable, boring scheme hasn’t resulted in success. Who knew?

It’s bad in every way and the team’s bottom of the league rankings in every major offensive category are a true reflection of how bad it’s been.

Reason for optimism: despite the deep systemic problems with both the roster and the scheme, offensively plays have been there to be made. Prescott is missing open receivers. Receivers are dropping catch-able balls. Offensive lineman are blowing assignments. These are all correctable. That’s all I got.

Washington Redskins

The ‘Skins were largely exposed as a fraud Monday Night while getting run over by the New Orleans Saints. Despite having two full weeks to prepare they were disorganized, dysfunctional and a complete and total mess. Alex Smith looks nothing like the league’s top-ranked quarterback from 2017. Who knew taking him away from one of the most innovative offensive minds in the league and an elite surrounding cast of talent would lead to diminished returns?

A defense that had played pretty well early in the season simply got run over Monday night and had no answers for Drew Brees. The Saints found open spaces everywhere on the field.

Reason for optimism: Drew Brees slices up lots of defenses. The Redskins simply need to forget Monday and move on. Unfortunately, they have a short week to prepare for a difficult Carolina matchup.

New York Giants

First the good news. The Giants scored more than 30 points for the first time since the final week of the 2015 season (a stretch of 37 games). They also put up 447 yards of offense and Eli Manning is actually in the top half of the league in passing metrics. Saquon Barkley is the real deal. So, after looking wholly inept early the season the offense is showing signs of life.

Too bad the defense stinks. They’ve surrendered 1,100 yards and 88 points the last three games and have generated only five turnovers on the season.

Reason for optimism: the offense finally resembled what was envisioned in the offseason Sunday. The key for the Giants will be whether an offensive line without Ereck Flowers can protect Eli enough to allow him to make plays to the team’s talented skill players.

The defense is unlikely to get much better so continued improvement is the best hope for the Giants.