- Associated Press - Monday, August 28, 2017

Drama in Dallas has opened up things in one of the NFL’s tougher divisions.

No team has repeated in the NFC East since the Philadelphia Eagles won four straight titles from 2001-04. The Cowboys are looking to follow a 13-3 season with another division crown, but Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension doesn’t help their chances.

Without their All-Pro running back for up to six games, the Cowboys have to rely more on Dak Prescott and Dez Bryant. Prescott had an outstanding rookie season, aided greatly by an excellent run game that took pressure off him.

Dallas also has a tough schedule and had to replace the entire starting secondary, so there are concerns on defense, too.

Eli Manning and the Giants are primed to take control if the Cowboys slip. New York won 11 games last season and added veteran receiver Brandon Marshall and rookie tight end Evan Engram to join star Odell Beckham, Jr. They should get plenty of action because the run game was among the bottom five last year. If Paul Perkins steps up to give the offense more balance, Manning and Co. will be even more dangerous.

On defense, the Giants return nine of 11 starters to a formidable group led by innovative coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

The Eagles found their franchise quarterback last season and surrounded Carson Wentz with more talent at skill positions, signing receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith and running back LeGarrette Blount. Philadelphia improved its defense by drafting defensive end Derek Barnett in the first round and acquiring cornerback Ronald Darby. But this team still appears a year away from being a legitimate contender.

Kirk Cousins is still in Washington, playing on another one-year, prove-it contract. He nearly threw for 5,000 yards last season, has a solid offensive line and a new weapon in Terrelle Pryor. But a poor defense is the biggest obstacle for the Redskins.

Here’s some things to know about the NFC East:

BIG BLUE: The Giants allowed the fewest touchdowns in the NFL and also had the league’s best red-zone defense. Free agent additions Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison and Janoris Jenkins lived up to their big contracts. The trio, along with safety Landon Collins, were All-Pros, with Collins and Harrison making first team. End Jason Pierre-Paul showed his old form and cornerback Eli Apple was steady enough. With Spagnuolo calling the shots, the defense has a chance to be one of the best in the league and send the Giants to the top of the standings.

REPLACING ZEKE: Veterans Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris will fill in for Elliott and a stellar offensive line should open holes for whoever gets the carries. The real trouble for Dallas is the defense. There are four new starters in the secondary; two other key defenders left in free agency. All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee remains and is a solid anchor, but there are question marks throughout. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will have to count on some rookies to contribute. The team spent seven of nine draft picks on defense, including rusher Taco Charlton in the first round, and cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis with its next two picks.

CARSON’S CREW: The additions of Jeffery , Smith and Blount should help Wentz, who has the talent, work ethic and poise to become an elite player. Losing popular receiver Jordan Matthews in a trade with Buffalo stung Wentz and a close-knit group, but the Eagles expect more offensive production in Year 2 for Wentz and coach Doug Pederson. A tough schedule the first six weeks could put the team in an early hole. If the defense continues improving under coordinator Jim Schwartz, Philadelphia should stay in the mix.

KIRK’S LAST STAND: Cousins enters his third straight season in the final year of a contract, and second straight playing under the franchise tag. He will earn $23.94 million this season and get to showcase his skills once again for the rest of the league. Another productive year should help him earn that elusive multiyear contract and keep the Redskins in the hunt. Cousins figures to throw often because Washington’s defense will give up its share of points.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Giants, Cowboys, Eagles, Redskins.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AP_RobMaaddi

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