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NFC BEast report: The Cowboys have fallen behind in the division

Strong defenses in the division, not so strong offenses.

Green Bay Packers v Washington Redskins Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Doom and gloom has been the prevailing theme around the Cowboys’ following the team’s dismal loss to the Seahawks, so let’s take a look and see how the team’s division foes are faring.

The good news is that despite Dallas playing poorly through three weeks they remain only a single game out of first place in the division. Many might scoff at any thoughts of winning the division with this particular team, but I’ll remind everyone of something I wrote two weeks ago:

But it doesn’t change the fact that that what we see in the opening weeks of the season is little more than glorified preseason football. That’s why what’s important this time of the season is results and not form. Both Philadelphia and Atlanta looked like poor teams last night; but each of them will look better a month from now.

Generally, how teams perform in September is not a good indicator of how they’ll perform in November and December. However, how you perform in September can make how you perform in December meaningless, because the September games count the same.

So, looking around, which NFC BEast team has both performed and gotten the best results? Those at the top of the standing: Washington and Philadelphia.

The Redskins are a surprise first place team through week three and they’ve earned it. They have the highest points scored and the fewest points allowed. You can quibble about competition but they’ve taken care of business so far.

The Eagles’ 2-1 record is somewhat fortuitous. Both wins, at home, required last-minute stops inside their own five-yard line. It’s not the slightest exaggeration to note this team is ten yards away from an 0-3 start. But the Eagles’ got the necessary stop each time and thus share the same 2-1 record as the Redskins.

Both the Cowboys and Giants are probably lucky to sit at 1-2 as neither has looked particularly good at any time this season.

Playoff odds

All of the above numbers come from Football Outsider’s DVOA Playoff Odds. I don’t pretend to understand how it all works but it always feels accurate. What these tell us:

  • Mean wins: predicted number of wins at end of season.
  • #1 - #6: likelihood of a team obtaining the number one, two, three, four, five or six seed in the NFC.
  • DIV / BYE / WC: likelihood of winning the division, claiming a first round bye or a wild card spot.
  • TOT: likelihood of making the playoffs in any form.

Thus we see Dallas has a 31% chance of making the playoffs while both Philadelphia and Washington sit around 50%. When looked at through the cold, emotionless prism of statistical odds, the Cowboys’ state doesn’t seem so dire. I mean, after this start I’d take a one-in-three chance of making the playoffs.

Offensive performance

Whew... that stench you smell is the rotting corpse of NFC East offenses, specifically the Cowboys and Giants. But even the Redskins and Eagles aren’t looking very good offensively. None rank higher than 17th in points per game, and three of the four rank in the bottom third of the league in yards per game.

We all know the Dallas offense has been abysmal thus far this season and the numbers above illustrate the stark reality: 31st in points, 30th in yards. The Giants are little better. The Eagles are also below average, though, as we’ll see, the return of Carson Wentz provides hope.

Defensive performance

Hmmmm... that sweet fragrant aroma you now smell comes from the pristine performances of the NFC East’s collective group of defenses. Three of the four teams rank in the top ten in both points and yards allowed. The worst team (Giants) are still above average. Both Dallas and Washington rank in the top five in yards and top seven in points. The Redskins are second in the NFL in both.

In short, the NFC East has all four offenses struggling between mediocre and wholly inept and four strong defenses that vary from dominant to good. Now three games is a small sample size and these numbers could look silly by mid-October. But it’s the information we got so far and that’s how the East is looking right now.

Washington Redskins

The Redskins are coming off a convincing 14-point victory over the Green Bay Packers. Adrian Peterson has proven a wise pickup after the injury to Derrius Guice and is on pace for a 1,250 yards, 16 touchdown season.

Alex Smith has been efficient with 8.0 yards per attempt and a 102 quarterback rating. The defense has generated seven sacks and eight turnovers in three games. The Redskins have a bye this week before traveling to New Orleans for a “show me” game against the high-powered Saints.

Philadelphia Eagles

If the Eagles are to be the first team to repeat as NFC East division champions since 2004, they’ll have to give thanks for two late-game stops that preserved narrow home victories in weeks one and three. As noted, without those stops this team would be 0-3 and full-fledged panic would no doubt be the mood in Philly.

The reality is they played better than the score indicated Sunday against the Colts. The return of Carson Wentz didn’t result in massive point totals but the offense did put up 379 yards. In fact, the offense has averaged 400 yards the last two games after only 232 yards in the team’s season-opener. Alshon Jeffery was a full participant in practice today and should help the offense even more. Darren Sproles and Jay Ajayi, however, are not likely to play Sunday.

The defense, meanwhile, rebounded nicely after getting diced up by Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Indy was held to only 209 total yards, including 141 yards passing. They were unable to generate any turnovers, however.

The Eagles travel to Tennessee Sunday; if they win as expected they’ll set themselves up nicely with a 3-1 record. The following week, however, they’ll face the Vikings in a rematch of last year’s NFC Championship game.

Dallas Cowboys

There’s not a lot to add about the Cowboys’ that hasn’t already been exhaustively covered on BTB. We know the offense is challenged and might not get any better (in which case this is a lost season). If, however, the offense can improve to at least average this team can sneak into the playoffs. The defense is that good.

The one area the defense needs to improve is generating turnovers. Despite 11 sacks in three games and a dynamic, play-making front-7 the team has only two turnovers in three games. They are on pace to match the historically inept 2015 squad in terms of turnovers caused. That has to change for this team to have any hope this season.

Matt Stafford represents the most potent quarterback this defense has faced thus far and should be a good measure of whether this defense is for real or a mirage.

The Giant offense finally got untracked Sunday, recording 379 yards and 27 points, which was a dramatic improvement over their prior two games when they recorded 28 points combined. Saquon Barkley looks every bit the franchise running back he was advertised to be. Eli Manning isn’t returning to his glory days again but he can be moderately effective as long as he avoids mistakes.

The problem is, unlike the three other East defenses, the Giants’ defense isn’t all that great. They gave up 427 yards Sunday to the Texans. They’ve recorded only four sacks and three turnovers through three games.

That defense will be thoroughly tested Sunday when they face off against a Saints’ team that averages 35 points and 428 yards per game.

The upcoming week is a kind of “moving” week for the NFC. Both Philly and Washington will be looking to create space between themselves and their competitors while Dallas and New York hope to avoid falling into a two-game hole.

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