NFC East Predictions

Posted: 08/25/2014 by levcohen in Football

I started my NFL 2014 preview by naming the three most underrated and overrated teams based on Bovada’s preseason over/under wins odds. With the season less than two weeks away (!) from starting, it’s time to continue the preview. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll predict the final order and records of each of the eight divisions, starting with the NFC and then going over to the inferior AFC. Today, I’ll start with the NFC East, which was once one of the best divisions in football but in the past few years has fallen off a cliff. But while no team in this division is elite or a shoo-in for the playoffs, all four are extremely interesting, thanks in no small part to the four polarizing quarterbacks who will lead these teams in week one. As is often the case, the team with the best quarterback will likely win the division. Three of these teams are offensive-minded, while the New York Giants are more defensively oriented but at this point are below average offensively. This division is hard to call, but I’ll try my best.

1. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6): I’m predicting the Philadelphia Eagles to win the division for the second straight year with the exact same record. Given that the Eagles are a similar team to the one that were surprise winners last season, this seems like an easy and obvious prediction to make. Of course, it isn’t. In fact, a 10-6 prediction seems to be at the higher end of the spectrum in terms of preseason predictions. Many people think this team is going to step back for a few reasons. The first is that some people think the loss of DeSean Jackson is going to hurt a lot. The second is that, after a rough 2012 season in terms of injuries, this team was very healthy last season, especially at the offensive line position. A good offensive line is key to Chip Kelly’s offense, and it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to stay as healthy this season. Finally, people think that this offense is going to step back because defensive coordinators will have had an entire offseason to prepare for Kelly’s no-longer-new offense. I agree somewhat with all three reasons, which is why I don’t have the Eagles improving on last year’s season. I find the health issue especially concerning, even more so now that right tackle Lane Johnson has been suspended for the first four games of the season, depleting an already thin line. The other two reasons for a Philly regression hold less sway with me. The Jackson loss will definitely hurt, but I think the offense has added enough to sustain its proficiency. Darren Sproles is the flashy acquisition, and I think he’ll have a huge impact. As we’ve already seen in the preseason, the Eagles are going to use Sproles and rushing champion LeSean McCoy together in innovative ways. Defenses won’t be able to contain both. The Eagles also get Jeremy Maclin back from a torn ACL. Because he’s been injured so much, I think people are now underestimating Maclin’s talent. At one point, he was the yin to Jackson’s yang, and there was a big debate as to who was better. Jordan Matthews, the second round pick, should have an immediate impact in the slot. But who will replace Jackson’s big play threat? Well, I don’t think anyone on this team will be as good as Jackson was on deep plays, but I do think tight end Zach Ertz is going to explode this year. He’s a physical specimen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns into the next Jimmy Graham-esque weapon. That probably won’t happen this season, but Ertz is going to have a huge second season. Given that I think the offense will be just as good as last season, I was tempted to give the Eagles 11 wins, because I think the defense will be at least a little better. Last year, the new 3-4 formation was new to everyone on the team, and in the second year, it should be less foreign. Expect guys like Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole, and Brandon Graham to look much more comfortable in the defense this season, which should lead to more sacks. The defense still won’t be good, but I think it could make the jump from near the bottom of the league up to the 20th range. I just realized that I forgot the biggest reason people expect regression: quarterback Nick Foles. Foles put up spectacular numbers last year, and those are obviously unsustainable for any quarterback, let alone an arguably mediocre one like Foles. I don’t expect Foles to put up top-5 numbers this year, but I also think he’s good enough to succeed in Kelly’s system. He might not be the asset he was last season, but I don’t think he’ll be an obstacle to another 10-win season. The bottom line is that, if everyone stays healthy, this team has the realistic upside of 11 wins. But if they have a ton of injuries and Foles is worse than we think, they could take a big step back. I’ll take the middle road and say they have a similar season to last year.

2. Washington Redskins (8-8): The Redskins are the sexy pick to win the NFC East, if almost by default. The Eagles won it last year, which eliminates them. The Cowboys are the Cowboys, and the Giants have an uninspiring offense and a successful recent history. Meanwhile, the Redskins have an exciting if polarizing (notice the theme?) quarterback in Robert Griffin III, leading a team including DeSean Jackson, who was recently cut by the Eagles and is surely out to prove a point. It’s a group of players looking to prove a point, and Griffin is the poster boy, so it makes sense to start with him. If he ever puts it together, Robert Griffin III will be among the best quarterbacks in football. He’s fast and elusive and has a strong and often accurate arm. The main problem is that he’s already been injured once, which cast a shadow over last season, a year in which he should have taken a big step forward. And in the preseason this year, he’s continued to take hit after hit after hit. If he doesn’t know how to avoid the big hits, he’s going to get hurt again, and if RGIII gets hurt again, this team won’t sniff .500. If he does, however, stay healthy, he’ll have plenty of weapons to work with. The aforementioned Jackson is going to be the big play threat and should open up defenses, while Pierre Garcon should put up similar numbers to last season, when he caught more passes than anyone else in football. Andre Roberts, who was signed in the offseason, is a fine third option, while young tight end Jordan Reed broke out last season and should be a good safety valve for Griffin again this year. The Redskins also have a solid one-two punch in the backfield in Alfred Morris (the better runner) and Roy Helu (the pass catcher). The swap of coaches (Mike Shanahan is gone, replaced by Jay Gruden) also cannot be ignored, as Gruden did good things in Cincinnati and should maintain a balanced attack in Washington. All in all, this is going to be a good offense. The defense might be a different story. They looked good in their most recent game against the Browns, but that was the Browns, and the preseason doesn’t mean much anyway. I just don’t see the pieces here, and this will likely be a below-average defense again. Last year, nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The defense fell apart, Griffin was benched at the end of the season, and the result was the firing of Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, among others. I don’t think they’ll be as bad this year, but I also don’t think they have the defense (secondary in particular. I’ve always thought Redskins’ top corner DeAngelo Hall is extremely overrated, especially by himself) to be any better than average. Even giving them eight wins was tough for me to do, but the offense should be dynamic enough to get Washington to .500.

3. New York Giants (7-9): The Giants were generating some positive vibe prior to the start of preseason, with a new offense implemented and the defense set to be by far the best in the division. All of that has dissipated throughout the preseason, as the offense looks as ineffective as ever. Any argument with an Eli Manning supporter will likely start with: “he has two rings,” but I don’t see how that’s relevant now. He hasn’t won in the last few years, and last year was his worst as a pro. He threw pick after pick after pick, looked generally frustrated (look up: Eli Manning face. That should do it), and cost the Giants a couple wins. I don’t think he’s going to be that much better this year, although he surely can’t be much worse. The problem is that, even after the Giants had a huge roster turnover in the offseason, I just don’t think they have the weapons to improve the offense or the defense to carry the team to the playoffs. First of all, while the defense is solid, it’s not the Seahawks, especially with the loss of Justin Tuck, long one of the best defensive ends in football, although not recently. And it might need to be the Seahawks for this team to make the playoffs. That’s how pessimistic I am about this offense. Yes, they added Rashad Jennings, who came out of nowhere last year for the Raiders and looks like a solid running back. And yes, Victor Cruz is still an exciting receiver, albeit one who struggled for stretches of last season (was it Manning’s fault of Cruz’s? It’s a chicken-and-egg debate. As usual, I’d tend to give both some blame). Who else is there, though? Reuben Randle? Rookie Odell Beckham? Outside of Cruz, I struggle to find an established average receiver on this team. That’s a huge problem, and it’s the reason I’m not confident the Giants will be much better this year than they were last. They could easily be worse than 7-9, but I think Manning is still average enough to keep this team from being too bad. The games might not be fun to watch, though, even with the supposedly new and more exciting and all-gun’s-blazing offensive system. In a division with three offensive-minded teams, the Giants are the clear outlier. That could be a good strategy, but I don’t think this team has the personnel to make it work.

4 Dallas Cowboys (5-11): I’m not going to write about the Cowboys, because I already did in my post about overrated teams. I feel pretty strongly about this, and I’ll leave it at that, because any more words written about “America’s Team” will be too many words written about the 2014 iteration of the Dallas Cowboys. I do think Tony Romo has been unfairly criticized and I feel bad for him, but even a healthy Romo won’t make a big difference for a team with a defense as bad as the Cowboys’.

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