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The NFC East is that one division that seems to shuffle it’s champion every season. Not since the Eagles in 2003 and 2004, has the division seen a repeat champion. What used to be an extremely deep foursome that had the chance to produce three playoff teams, has been reduced to “ordinary” status. The Eagles, surprising Super Bowl champions, are fitted to break that consecutive division winners streak and should be the cream of this particular crop. The Giants and Cowboys appear to be headed in opposite directions and the Redskins lack an identity (and with a change at quarterback). No longer wide open, the road to the top of the NFC East will run through Philadelphia (again).
1. Philadelphia Eagles
2017 record: 13-3
2018 Projection: 12-4
The reigning, defending, undisputed Super Bowl Champions! And perhaps most importantly, “defeater of the Patriots.” Not to take any credit away from this team, who proved to be great all season long, but everything fell perfectly into place, including Nick Foles career-defining game to capture the Lombardi trophy. The Eagles should be the toast of the NFC East once again in ’18, even if they have a lower win total. Carson Wentz, whose MVP-caliber season was cut short with a torn ACL, should be ready to roll within the first couple weeks of the season. The defense will be elite again, only this time, they’ll have Michael Bennett coming off the edge to pressure opposing quarterbacks as well. Aside from a few minor injuries, Philly has all the pieces in place to run it back deep into the playoffs. The NFC is plenty deep this season, but the Eagles will be right there.
Best case scenario: Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles holds down the fort until Wentz gets back and he picks up right where he left off (ahead of Tom Brady in the MVP race) from last season with healthier receivers. The defensive performance is on par with last season and the Eagles make a run back to the Super Bowl to defend their title.
Worst case scenario: Wentz’s injury is more serious than originally thought and he struggles to get back on the field in the first half of the season. With that, Foles can’t produce at that high a level and the teams in the NFC East chase down the division front runner, causing some playoff disruption.
Bottom line: The Eagles will be just fine. Wentz will get back, be plenty good and lift this team to the playoffs with relative ease. But because the NFC is so deep, who the heck knows what will happen once they arrive. Unfortunately, I don’t see a repeat appearance in the Super Bowl.
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2. New York Giants
2017 record: 3-13
2018 Projection: 9-7
I know, a six-win bump is significant. But 2017 was a house of horrors for the Giants. Their receivers were broken and their run game was non-existent. Both issues should be addressed this season. First, Odell Beckham Jr. is back and plenty rich. But he still wants the reputation of best receiver in the game. After that, the team drafting the enigmatic Saquon Barkley with the #2 overall pick in the draft. He figures to be both exciting and productive, giving the Giants a ground attack that they haven’t seen since the glory days of Tiki Barber. The offensive line did shuffle (Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg are OUT, Nate Solder is IN) some personnel around and might need some time to adjust. The defense (finished ranked #24 last season) is still a minor concern with Landon Collins serving as the unit’s only “star” player. It could be a work in progress for new head coach Pat Shurmur, who succeeds the Ben McAdoo-Steve Spagnuolo disaster from last year. Frankly, and despite him being a bit of a model of inconsistency (see below), I think we see the return of “good” Eli Manning for this 15th season. And whether you like him or not (I still do), he’s an unquestioned future Hall of Famer. With a few more weapons at his disposal, he’ll be much better than the last year.
Best case scenario: Eli gets the maximum capacity out of his new toy in Barkley and regains the chemistry with Beckham, leading the offense to a positive transformation in comparison to last year. The defense also improves and the Giants push for a playoff spot in the loaded NFC.
Worst case scenario: Despite the new weapons, Eli turns the ball over too much (something he’s been privy to do). Barkley struggles with a weaker offensive line and Beckham takes time to round into elite form. The defense settles in around that #24 ranking of last year and the Giants sink in the division.
Bottom line: I’m certainly onside with Giants resurgence in 2018, even though I think they miss out on the playoffs. The other teams around them are just too good. 9-7 or even 8-8 feels around right. I’ll go with the optimistic approach. Regardless of record, it’ll be major fun to watch the Barkley-Beckham combo this season.
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3. Dallas Cowboys
2017 record: 9-7
2018 Projection: 6-10
The ‘Boys are in some trouble. Even though Ezekiel Elliott might run for 450,000 yards this season, the team is hurting in just about every other area. The once-superior offensive line is banged up, the receivers are thin and it’s hard to find reason (there isn’t any) that the defense will be much improved from their #24 DVOA ranking last season. While I do think third-year quarterback Dak Prescott is flying a little under the radar, with the loss of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten (two trusted targets), he has less to work with than his previous two seasons (Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley and Terrence Williams aren’t putting the fear of God into anyone). The team even released kicker Dan Bailey (the second most accurate kicker (88.2%) in NFL history), who’s been with the team since 2011! I also think this is the year that Jason Garrett finally gets chopped, despite Jerry Jones’ seemingly never-ending trust in him. Dallas plays a tough schedule and it wouldn’t shock me to see them at the bottom of the division in ’18.
Best case scenario: The team (literally) rides an Ezekiel Elliott monster season (think 2,000+ yards and 15 touchdowns) and Dak’s creativity to some extra wins and sniff a playoff berth. The defense holds things in place and the Cowboys are respectable.
Worst case scenario: Teams are well prepared for Elliott and stack the box on a weekly basis, slowing him and making Prescott beat them with the core of receivers he has, which he struggles to do. The defense, without improvements, get taken to the woodshed again and Garrett finds himself unemployed at seasons end (or sooner).
Bottom line: This is a transition year (or even the beginning of a rebuild) for the Cowboys. With their roster in it’s current state, I can’t see how they keep pace with the teams in their division. With that, the team has FIVE prime time games this season, so unfortunately, we’re all going to be subjected to watching this “magic” unfold.
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4. Washington Redskins
2017 record: 7-9
2018 Projection: 6-10
It’s a challenge to peg the Redskins in 2018, as they appear to be a team made up of a lot of individual pieces. First and foremost, they’re making a change at quarterback. Out is Kirk Cousins, who left for the greener and fully guaranteed pastures of Minnesota, being replaced by the “game manager” himself, Alex Smith. While their styles differ, I don’t see a huge uptick or drop off in signal calling. But offensively, the team has injuries, to the point where Adrian Peterson was brought in to soften the blow. Heralded rookie Derrice Guice was lost for the season almost immediately. Tight end Jordan Reed is also banged up. The team seems to cycle through its receivers very frequently as well. Josh Doctson and Jamison Crowder will attempt to establish themselves as a 1-2 punch. Defensively, the Skins ranked #11 in DVOA last season, but didn’t make any major improvements in the offseason. With the biggest change coming under center, it’s a struggle to see how Washington will breakout of that 6-7 win territory.
Best case scenario: Alex Smith gets off to the start he did last season in Kansas City (1,979 yards, 72.6%, 15 TDs, 0 INTs), where he was basically leading the MVP race for the season’s first half. He establishes rapport quickly with his new teammates and Washington catches some people by surprise. If AP turns back the clock, that’s gravy. An outside shot at the playoffs can be had, but the cards will have to fall perfectly.
Worst case scenario: Smith struggles to adjust quickly enough, where the team falters out of the gate and can’t catch up. The lack of a running game is too much and the defense can’t perform in the same way it did previously. The team misses the playoffs.
Bottom line: The Redskins might look like a fun fantasy team on paper, but they’ll struggle to win consistently in 2018. They may notch a couple of signature wins over formidable teams, but it won’t be enough to compete for a playoff spot among the other giants in the conference. Jay Gruden’s days might be numbered.