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Which team is best positioned to unseat Washington as NFC East champions?

Wild Card Round - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Washington Football Team Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

It’s a well-known fact that you have to go back to the 2003 & 2004 seasons to find a repeat winner in the NFC East. In fact, the surest bet for almost two decades has been to put your money on the fact that whoever won the division last year won’t win it again this year. Washington, of course, is the latest NFL team to go from worst-to-first in its division, converting a 3-13 campaign in 2019 into a division winning 7-9 season in 2020.

Personally, I think Washington will be the team that breaks the cycle and repeats as NFCE champs, but, if the pattern is to continue, which of our division foes is most likely to knock Washington off its perch atop the division?

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I’m ready to state here and now that it won’t be the Eagles. I’m not saying it’s impossible — after all, this time last year, most pundits had Washington as, not just the worst team in the division, but among the bottom-3 in the league. Philly could put it all together for a 2021 championship, I just personally don’t think it’s gonna happen and I’m not wasting any of my time considering the possibility.

I’ve been writing since the 2018 season that Howie Roseman has been making his team worse every year, and I’m sticking to my narrative. The Eagles have done everything wrong since the end of their super bowl parade, and 2021 looks to be their nadir. If you expect discussion of the Eagle’s chances of a division win, you can check the comments section, or perhaps, look at Bleeding Green Nation for a cockeyed optimist, but I’m not entertaining the thought that the Eagles finish anywhere other than the bottom of the division, with a top-5 pick in the 2022 draft.

So, in my mind, it’s only a question of whether the Giants or the Cowboys are more likely to prevail.

Let’s compare the two in several key matrices and see what the tea leaves suggest.

Strength of Schedule

Draft Kings recently did a strength of schedule analysis for the upcoming 2021 season. Rather than giving a definitive ranking, they offered three different rankings based on three different criteria. In a ranking where #1 represents the easiest strength of schedule, the Cowboys ranked #1 or #2 in each ranking. The Giants ranked 19th, 15th and 10th. (Washington was 24, 19, 17).

In the NFC “standings” games, the Cowboys play the Cardinals and the Vikings, while the Giants face the Rams and the Bears.

In the new AFC “17th game” matchup, the Cowboys get the Patriots, while the Giants play the Dolphins.

Taking the three games each as a group, I don’t see any real advantage to either team here. I’d expect the Rams, with Matt Stafford, to be an improved team, while the Patriots look poised for a huge improvement after spending big in free agency. The four other teams don’t seem substantially better or worse as we sit here before the draft, though the Vikings struggled with the salary cap this off-season while the Bears seem to have taken a step back under the decision making of GM Ryan Pace.

I don’t see an advantage for either team here.

Coaching

To me, this is an easy call. Mike McCarthy is one of the most over-rated coaches in the NFL, while Joe Judge seems to be a talented up-and-comer who will only get better every year.

Advantage: Giants

Quarterback

Dak Prescott is reported to be doing well with his rehab. New York has Daniel Jones...a poor man’s Kirk Cousins.

Dallas will live to regret the size of the contract they gave to Dak, but it won’t hurt them this season.

Big advantage: Cowboys

Running back

The Giants have one of the hardest working, most likable and talented young men in the NFL in Saquon Barkley. The Cowboys have Zeke Elliott.

Both teams badly over-committed draft or cap resources to a position that doesn’t really translate into more wins in today’s NFL (unless you’re the Tennessee Titans).

Off the field, give me Saquon every day of the week and twice on Sundays. On the field, the Ewok probably does as much for the Dallas offense as Barkely does for his.

I see no advantage for either team (and I’m thrilled that Washington has Antonio Gibson).

Receivers

Boy, am I glad we signed William Jackson III to a contract. Look at these receiving groups:

The Giants look pretty good; the Cowboys look a lot better. Cooper and Gallup have both proven themselves to be talented receivers that can win on routes, and CeeDee Lamb has lots of upside. Slayton compares pretty favorably to Gallup, but Golladay and Ross can’t hang with Cooper and Lamb in terms of talent and potential.

Of couse, either team (especially the Giants) could add talent in the draft, but both teams have other needs. Unless the Giants surprise me in the draft, I’m saying:

Advantage: Cowboys

Tight Ends

Remember when the NFC East was loaded with tight end talent?

The draft is still ahead of us, but right now, the battle is between Blake Jarwin & Dalton Schultz for the Cowboys, and 31-year-old Kyle Rudolph, Evan Engram and Kaden Smith for the Giants.

As soon as Ertz is gone from the Eagles (a move that seems inevitable), Washington will have the best TE room in the division. Let that sink in for a minute!

Again, the draft could change things here, but:

Slight advantage: Giants

Offensive line

Yeah, I know...Dallas has a big scary O-line.

Or maybe not so much.

What Dallas actually has is an above-average but aging and frequently injured O-line. The Giants have three guys they have drafted since 2018, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see New York draft another interior lineman or two later this month.

I think this is a close call today, but over the course of a 17-game season, I believe that the Giants OL will get better and stronger, while the Dallas OL has already peaked.

Slight advantage: Giants

Defensive line & Edge

I expected to give this to the Cowboys pretty handily, but a look at their depth chart was surprising. They’ve got solid young DTs, but only one threatening pass rusher in Demarcus Lawrence, who has a scary reputation based on a single 7-game stretch in 2017. For the past two years he has had pedestrian production while getting paid like an All-Pro.

The Giants 3-4 defense seems to have more overall talent up front, with Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence and former Football Teamer Ryan Anderson leading a front 7 with good depth (BJ Hill, Danny Shelton, RJ McIntosh).

Slight advantage: Giants

Linebackers

I see the names Jaylen Smith and Leighton Vander Esch and I think, “great linebacker group”. But they didn’t play so well in 2020.

The Giants are pretty solid, with Blake Martinez, Lorenzo Carter and Tae Crowder.

I’m gonna buy the Dallas narrative that the defensive scheme was to blame for much of what went wrong in 2020, and that the change from Mike Nolan to Dan Quinn will restore the linebacker play.

Projected slight advantage: Cowboys

Defensive backs

The Cowboys expected a lot from Trevon Diggs when they drafted him last year. He probably didn’t live up to the hype, but I imagine he’ll be better as a second-year corner than he was as a rookie.

It’s hard for me to say anything positive about Keanu Neal. I’ll always think fo him as the guy who ended Jordan Reed’s Washington career with a dirty hit in the preseason. I can’t acknowledge anything positive about his play.

Beyond that, the Cowboys are trying to recover from the failure to develop at the CB position after taking 3 CBs in the same draft in 2017.

The Cowboys need help here, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them use their 10th overall pick on a cornerback to pair with Diggs.

Meanwhile, look at the Giants’ list of defensive backs!

  • James Bradberry
  • Adoree Jackson
  • Logan Ryan
  • Jabrill Peppers
  • Xavier McKinney
  • Darnay Holmes

Big advantage: Giants

Overall

It looks like the Dallas offense with Dak Prescott and some talented wide receivers gives a bit advantage to Dallas, though the Giants have a much better defense, espcially at the third level, where they have some very talented DBs. In addition, the Giants seem to have a superior coaching staff and a better plan for consistent roster development. It feels as if the only thing holding the Giants back from being a strong playoff contender is the fact that they have Daniel Jones as their quarterback.

On the strength of the Prescott-Jones comparison, I’m gonna pick Dallas as the most likely division rival to unseat Washington in 2021, but in my mind, the Football Team should be the favorites to do what hasn’t been done since 2004 — they should be expected to win a second consecutive division title.

HTTMFFT