Friday, March 24, 2023

Is the NFC East now the best division in the NFL? Here’s how it’s gone from trash to competitive

The NFC East is the biggest surprise of the 2022 season, having three teams with four-plus wins through the first five weeks. The Philadelphia Eagles are the lone unbeaten team in the league at 5-0, while the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants — yes the New York Giants — are 4-1. The division has a combined record of 14-6 — as the .700 win percentage is the best in the league. 

Just two years ago, the NFC East was the worst division in football as all four teams finished with an under .500 record. Washington was a laughable division champion at 7-9, while New York and the prior coaching staff complained about Philadelphia costing their franchise a chance at the division title — even though the Giants had a 6-10 record. The 2020 version of the NFC East finished 23-40-1, as the .367 win percentage was the fourth worst in NFL history. Certainly an all-time low for the division.

This season, the NFC East can stake the claim as the best division in football through the first five weeks of the year. The NFC East is the fourth division since realignment in 2002 with three teams having four-plus wins through the first five weeks (2002 AFC West, 2008 NFC East, 2020 AFC North). Of the six best records in football, three of them come from the NFC East. 

How did the NFC East get to this point so quickly? There are a few factors that played a role in getting the division back to its championship form instead of it being the laughing stock of the league. 

Philadelphia Eagles

The emergence of Jalen Hurts: Hurts went from the questions of whether he can be the Eagles’ franchise quarterback to MVP candidate in the first five weeks. He’s fifth in the league in completion percentage (67.9%), seventh in passing yards (1,359), second in yards per attempt (8.5), and eighth in passer rating. He also has 68 carries for 266 yards and six rushing touchdowns, second amongst quarterbacks in rushing yards and first in rushing touchdowns. 

Hurts only trails Josh Allen in total yards (has 1,625 on the year), while ranking fourth in on-target throws (80.4%) and fourth in throwing in zone coverage (100.4). One of the most dangerous players in football, Hurts’ rapid growth has a talented Eagles team with the best record in football. 

The A.J. Brown impact: Brown has transformed the Eagles passing game as Philadelphia is seventh in the league in passing yards (259.8 per game) and first in net yards gained per pass attempt (7.6). Brown has 28 catches for 436 yards and 15.57 yards per catch, ranking fifth in the league in receiving yards. 

The Eagles are the only team in the league to have three players over 300 receiving yards through five weeks (Brown, DeVonta Smith, and Dallas Goedert). Philadelphia gave Hurts a No. 1 wide receiver to pair with Smith and Goedert and the Eagles passing game has taken off. 

Howie Roseman’s offseason: What Roseman did to turn the Eagles from a surprise playoff team in 2021 to a Super Bowl contender in 2022 needs to be acknowledged. In one offseason, Roseman traded for Brown and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and landed James Bradberry, Haason Reddick, and Kyzir White in free agency. They also drafted Jordan Davis in the first round and added depth on the offensive line in Cam Jurgens and linebacker in Nakobe Dean

The development of Hurts was imperative to the Eagles, which is why they acquired Brown and signed Zach Pascal to make the wide receiver group deeper. Philadelphia improved the pass rush and already had the best offensive line in football, as Roseman found a way to make an emerging roster with good veteran players even better. 

Oh, and he has two first-round picks for 2023. The Eagles could be good for a while. 

Dallas Cowboys

The defensive line is even better than last year: Dallas already had Micah Parsons heading into his second season after a historic rookie campaign, and Parsons is arguably the best pass rusher in the game. He’s the only player in the league ranked in the top three in sacks (six), tackles for loss (seven) and quarterbacks (12), making a tremendous impact on a defensive line that’s arguably the best in football. 

The Cowboys are second in the league in sacks (20) and are first in pressures (91), having three players (Parsons, Dorance Armstrong, and DeMarcus Lawrence) with three-plus sacks on the year. The team pressure rate of 42.1% is tops in the NFL, terrorizing offensive lines every week. 

Dallas is one of the top teams in the league thanks to its dominant defensive line. 

Cooper Rush kept the team afloat: After the debacle against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1 that led to Dak Prescott’s thumb injury, the Cowboys turned over the franchise to a quarterback that was on their practice squad and available for any team to claim. 

All Rush did through four starts was complete 61.9% of his passes for 775 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions for a 97.1 passer rating — not turning the football over as a bonus. Dallas only has two giveaways on the year because of Rush, even though he fumbled twice in his last start.

Going 4-0 with a backup quarterback is impressive, even if the Cowboys haven’t scored more than 25 points in any of those games. Rush isn’t the franchise quarterback, but Dallas is competing for the NFC East title because of how he’s managed the offense. 

New York Giants

Brian Daboll is getting the most of his roster: The Giants won just four games last year with Daniel Jones at quarterback and a poor offensive line. Jones and the poor offensive line are still in New York, yet the Giants are 4-1 through five games and in contention for the division title and a playoff berth. 

Daboll knows how to coach, which explains how Jones has the most game-winning drives (three) despite throwing for the second-fewest yards per game (169.6). The Giants use creative formations by Daboll to get the most out of his personnel, lining up wide receivers as tight ends and running backs in the wildcat formation. 

Having an Andy Reid-disciple in Mike Kafka calling plays on offense and Wink Martindale running the defense has also paid huge dividends for a roster that isn’t nearly as good as the Eagles and Cowboys. Daboll’s method of preaching competition and not caring about a player’s contract or draft status has paid huge dividends towards building a roster the way he wants to — while winning games in the process. 

The Giants rebuild may not be as long as initially thought. Amazing what happens when a franchise makes the right head coach hire. 

Saquon Barkley is a MVP candidate: A healthy Barkley has transformed the Giants offense, averaging career highs in rushes per game (19.4), yards per carry (5.5), and rushing yards per game (106.6). Barkley has 97 carries for 533 yards and three touchdowns while having 18 catches for 143 yards. He leads the league in yards from scrimmage (676), while averaging 5.9 yards per touch. 

Barkley has transformed the Giants rush offense, which ranks second in yards per game (179), fourth in yards per carry (5.4), and tied for third in rushing touchdowns (seven). This is behind an offensive line that has allowed the highest offensive pressure rate (48%) in the NFL this season as teams have to stack the box because of a passing game that’s inept if Jones holds the ball too long. 

Barkley has been carrying the Giants. They’re in games because of him. 

The schedule

The favorable schedule the NFC East is playing can’t be ignored when breaking down why the division is one of the best in the NFL. Based on opponent won-loss records from the 2021 season, NFC East teams have the four easiest schedules in the league. The Cowboys and Commanders had the easiest at .462, while the Eagles had the third-easiest at .464, and the Giants fourth-easiest at .465. 

Playing the AFC South and NFC North — two of the worst divisions in the NFL — have certainly helped the NFC East. The division is set to have a tougher challenge ahead looking at the strength of schedule with the opponent records for the rest of the season. 

The Commanders (1-4) have the toughest schedule in the league for the final 12 games (.617) while the Cowboys have the fourth hardest (.567). The Eagles and Giants have the ninth-hardest schedules with a .533 opponent win percentage, so the hot starts may cool off as the season wears on. 

Of course the Eagles have to play the Giants and Cowboys twice, which makes their strength of schedule tougher. The Giants and Cowboys have already played each other in Week 3, but match up one more time and the Giants have to play the Eagles twice later in the season. 

Classic Eagles-Cowboys games and Eagles-Giants games will go a long way toward showcasing the power of the NFC East — along with their won-loss record outside the division. NFC East teams are 11-3 in the 14 interdivisional games, showcasing how strong the division actually is in 2022. 

Thanks to the Eagles, Cowboys, and Giants — the NFC East is back to being the best division in football. The rest of the season will determine if it’s a mirage or the real thing. 

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