Is NFC East the NFL's best division? A look at playoff hopes for Eagles, Cowboys, Giants and Comm...

ByNFL Nation reporters ESPN logo
Wednesday, November 30, 2022
ESPN

The NFC East is the best division in football. Take all the time you need to digest that sentence.

It has been lean times for the storied division of late, having produced just one team with a double-digit win column -- the 12-5 Dallas Cowboys in 2021 -- over the past three seasons. Yikes.

But this season is different. The Philadelphia Eagles (10-1) have already cleared that hurdle and own the best record in football. The Cowboys (8-3) aren't far behind, while the New York Giants (7-4) and Washington Commanders (7-5) are enjoying surprising success.

All four teams would qualify for the postseason based on the current standings. That has never happened in any division, dating back to the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, according to ESPN Stats & Information. And no division in history has produced a season in which every team finished with a winning record, which happens to be the current situation in the NFC East.

Since the schedule is backloaded with division games, this promises to be a memorable close to the season. ESPN NFL Nation reporters Tim McManus, Todd Archer, Jordan Raanan and John Keim take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each team and tackle the key questions they'll face as they hit the home stretch.

Philadelphia Eagles

Why the Eagles can be the top seed in the NFC

The Eagles have the best record in football at 10-1. They own a one-game lead plus the head-to-head tiebreaker over the next-closest NFC opponent, the 9-2 Minnesota Vikings. And their closing schedule is the third easiest in the NFL, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. Quarterback Jalen Hurts is a bona fide MVP candidate working behind a dominant offensive front. He leads a versatile offense that can adjust to any style of fight and is backed by a defense that is tops in the league in takeaways (23). They're as well-positioned and well-equipped as any team in the conference to secure home-field advantage.

Why the Eagles are vulnerable

Their run defense has been shaky at times, particularly since rookie defensive tackle Jordan Davis went down with a high ankle sprain in Week 8 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the four games since, they've allowed 525 rushing yards (131.5 per game), which ranks 23rd over that span. The Eagles' special teams unit, meanwhile, is 23rd in efficiency per ESPN's metrics, standing in stark contrast to their offensive (second) and defensive (second) ranks. There has been at least one special teams miscue in almost every game they've played. It feels like just a matter of time before it bites them.

The Eagles have sustained a lot of injuries recently. Who can we expect back for the playoffs?

Davis is eligible to return from injured reserve this week against the Tennessee Titans. Tight end Dallas Goedert (shoulder) is expected to return at some point during the regular season, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. That's a big one: He was playing like a top-three tight end before injuring a shoulder in their Week 10 loss to the Commanders. Hurts' rushing attempts (33 in the past two weeks) have jumped up in Goedert's absence, as the offense adapts to life without him. Goedert is eligible to come off IR after Week 14.

SafetyC.J. Gardner-Johnsonsustained a lacerated kidney, according to a source, on Sunday night against the Packers. There is no timetable yet for his return. The loss of Gardner-Johnson, the league leader in interceptions (6), would be significant for this defense if it's for an extended time. Fortunately, slot corner Avonte Maddox (hamstring) is eligible to come off IR next week. -- Tim McManus

Dallas Cowboys

Why the Cowboys can be the top seed in the NFC

They will need some help from the Eagles and Vikings, who sit atop the NFC standings, and they'll need to continue on the path they're on. The offense, despite penalty issues, is playing its best football of the season, and the defense has been dominant for a good portion of the season. With their physical style, the Cowboys could be a tough out in the playoffs, even if they aren't the top seed.

Why the Cowboys are vulnerable

Is it too easy to say "injuries"? No? OK. Injuries -- especially another one to quarterbackDak Prescott, who missed five games earlier this season with a fractured thumb. But penalties and run defense are the two worries. They can't expect to win in the playoffs when they commit 13 penalties like they did in their 28-20 victory over the Giants on Thanksgiving. They can't expect to win when they allow 200-plus rushing yards either, like the did recently versus the Packers and Bears. They have been better versus the run the past two games, but the Eagles, Vikings and San Francisco 49ers will provide challenges.

Is this team built to reach the NFC Championship Game for the first time since their last Super Bowl win, following the 1995 season?

Yes, but so were the 2007 Cowboys that had home-field advantage in the NFC, the 2014 Cowboys that lost on a controversial overturn of a Dez Bryant catch and the 2016 Cowboys that also had home-field advantage.

The 2022 Cowboys have shown a resolve that started with last season's playoff loss to San Francisco. They won without Prescott this season, going 4-1 with backup Cooper Rush as the starter. They won with key starters missing multiple games. They have a defense that can give any offense trouble, led by Micah Parsons. They have a coach in Mike McCarthy who has had playoff success.

The margin for error, however, is thin. They need to be at their best to beat the best in the NFC. They are not as talented as the Cowboys of the 1990s -- few teams have been -- but the opposition isn't as good as the opposition was then, either. The Cowboys do not have to fear any opponent, but no opponent will fear them, either. -- Todd Archer

New York Giants

Why the Giants can make the playoffs

Let's start with the fact that they are currently the sixth seed in the NFC, ahead of Washington (7-5) and the Seattle Seahawks (6-5). So they have a head start. It's also entirely possible the Giants get as many as six starters back from injury for this week's game against the Commanders. Regardless, reinforcements are on the way to supplement a flawed roster.

Why the Giants are vulnerable

They have lost three of four and the defense has shown cracks against better competition. That's especially notable down the stretch, when five of the Giants' six games are against teams currently with winning records. They have two games against Washington, two against the Eagles and one against Minnesota. It's not going to be easy.

Can the Giants rely on running backSaquon Barkley to carry them down the stretch?

Barkley has been handling a heavy workload this season. He has played 82.1% of the team's offensive snaps (no other running back is even close to 80%), and the numbers show he's slowing down. Barkley's rushing yards over expectation per carry was at plus-1.7 over the first seven weeks, per NFL Next Gen Stats. It has been at minus-0.7 over the past four games. Surely some of Barkley's struggles have to do with the constant shuffling in recent weeks on the offensive line.

Coach Brian Daboll insists Barkley hasn't slowed down and it's more of a team problem. "No, Saquon's out there running hard, trying to do everything he can do," Daboll said. "We've got to do a better job collectively."

The Giants were without three-fifths of their starters on the line for the Thanksgiving Day loss to the Cowboys. All three (right tackle Evan Neal, center Jon Feliciano and left guard Ben Bredeson) could be back this week versus the Commanders. That should help Barkley and the Giants moving forward. -- Jordan Raanan

Washington Commanders

Why the Commanders can make the playoffs

Because of their run game and defense. In the past seven weeks, the defense ranks third in points and yards allowed, and the team ranks first in turnover margin. Their defensive line has been terrific, especially tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, and the secondary is much improved. Their run game, too, is a huge reason, as rookie Brian Robinson Jr. continues to improve. In this 6-1 stretch, Washington's run game ranks second in rush attempts and fourth in yards. The Commanders have found their identity.

Why the Commanders are vulnerable

While Taylor Heinicke has been a terrific story, it has to be quarterback play. He has made some big plays and timely throws, but he also flirts with danger every game, and at some point it could cost them, considering they're always in close games. But it's not just him.Carson Wentz was inconsistent -- playing in a new offense, without the benefit of a strong run game -- before breaking his right ring finger. One of those two will have to provide more consistency in the passing game.

What would defensive endChase Young's return mean for Washington's playoff hopes and a run in the postseason?

First, let's focus on the fact that the line has played well without the No. 2 overall pick from the 2020 draft, who is recovering from a torn right ACL sustained Nov. 14, 2021. Allen and Payne are the best interior duo in the NFL; they both have 6.5 sacks and have combined for 27 tackles for a loss. Meanwhile, end Montez Sweat has seven sacks, including four in the past three games. He's playing well. But they've also shown terrific depth, both at end and inside. And for the most part, they've played well as a group -- something they did not do last season.

So they can make the postseason even if Young doesn't return. But when he does, Young can add more sizzle in pass-rush situations. He's more dangerous than his replacement,James Smith-Williams, who's more of a run-stopper. So teams will have to account for him even if he plays only 12-15 snaps a game for the time being.

Of course, we don't know how effective he'll be, but his presence will add energy to the defense. That matters. And it simply gives them more depth and the ability to keep players fresher. And his athleticism will help when facing mobile quarterbacks such as New York's Daniel Jonesand Cleveland's Deshaun Watson, among others, down the stretch. Given how much time Young has missed, the final five weeks could put him in a better position to make big plays in the postseason. That could be where he makes his biggest impact. -- John Keim

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