- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Funny thing about the NFC East: The previous season’s division winner can be considered an unlikely champion the next year.

The last time an NFC East team won consecutive division titles was 2003-04 when the Philadelphia Eagles were on a run of four consecutive division championships. In the 12 seasons since, every team in the division has won it at least once but not more than three times (Philadelphia). No team has won consecutive titles. So, bad news for the 2016 division winning Cowboys.

History aside, the division’s projected outcome hints at a repeat of last season. The Cowboys, even without suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott for six games, are the favorites in Las Vegas. The New York Giants are right behind them. Oddsmakers think Philadelphia has improved from last season’s 7-9 mark that followed a 3-0 start. That leaves one team labeled a longshot to win the NFC East: The Washington Redskins.

When Scot McCloughan was general manager of the Redskins, he had a wall filled with the name of every player on every team in the league. The rosters of the Redskins‘ three division opponents were lined up on the far right side of the wall. Passing through the room one day, he ticked off the name of each NFC East foe and explained why they could be beaten and how important it was to do so. McCloughan is gone, but the sentiment remains.

The tussle for the division begins Week 1 with a head-to-head matchup between the Eagles and Redskins at FedEx Field. Philadelphia offensive lineman Lane Johnson shared his thoughts in a story he wrote for The Players’ Tribune about what will occur:

“Let me tell you what’s going to happen in a couple of weeks. This team is going to go down to D.C. and whup some ass against the Redskins. We’re going to surprise some people.

“That’s where the momentum is going to begin, and then the hype train is just going to get bigger as the league realizes that the Eagles are back. The NFC East is the toughest division in all of football and it’s going to get even tougher this season because nobody is going to want to face us. I’m not saying this just to blow smoke, I’m telling you guys this is how it’s going to go down.”

Most crucial to the Redskins‘ hopes of winning the division will be that opener, then Weeks 7 and 8 when they play back-to-back NFC East games at Philadelphia and home against Dallas. Another crucial back-to-back, and the New York Giants, looms in the second half of the season. Washington hosts New York then is at Dallas in consecutive late-November Thursday primetime games. Only one division game remains in the final month of the season: at New York to close the season. That will be New Year’s weekend in the city. It will also bring back memories of the disheartening end to last season when Washington lost at home to a Giants team with nothing to play for. That eliminated the Redskins from the playoffs.

Washington coach Jay Gruden thinks the route to the top of the division is cleared on the ground. That was not the case when the Redskins won the division in 2015 with Gruden in charge. They were just 20th in rushing yards that season. The Redskins gained more rushing yards the season before, when they were 4-12. It was the case last season when Dallas plowed through most of the league. The Cowboys finished second in rushing.

“At the end of the day, when you get late in the season, when you look at the stats throughout the history of the NFC East, usually the team that can stop the run and run the ball the best is the team that wins the division,” Gruden said. “We were an exception in 2015 when we won the division but for the most part, last eight or nine years, it’s the team that stops the run and runs the ball the best.”

The stars around the division remain in place despite all the league-wide movement in the offseason. In Dallas, a Pro-Bowl-player-filled offensive line is set to protect quarterback Dak Prescott. It wasn’t just Prescott’s completion rate that stood out last season. He had a magnificent ability to protect the ball when throwing it. Prescott finished with 23 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Only New England’s Tom Brady threw fewer interceptions — a head-shaking two — among quarterbacks with at least 400 pass attempts. The question for Prescott is how Elliott’s absence will affect him.

Quarterback Eli Manning enters his 14th season in New York. He is eighth in league history in passing yards. If he is able to repeat an average personal season, Manning will move to sixth, passing Warren Moon and John Elway in the process. Along for the ride again in New York is Josh Norman antagonist Odell Beckham Jr. He is earning just $1.84 million this season, which makes him one of the league’s best bargains despite his histrionics.

Philadelphia is trying to determine if it is the team that began last season 3-0 or the one that fell flat during a 4-9 close to the season that included a final-week win against the Cowboys, who were resting numerous starters. Quarterback Carson Wentz’s touchdown-interception ratio almost leveled (16-14) by the end of the season. He opened with seven touchdowns and an interception in the first four weeks last season.

The randomness associated with the division for more than a decade is illustrated beyond the Las Vegas lines of predicted success. At NFL.com, 15 “experts” ranging from former players to media analysts were asked to pick the division winner. Ten picked the Giants, four picked the Eagles, only one selected Dallas to repeat. No one picked the Redskins.

NFC East at a glance

Dallas Cowboys

Last season: 13-3

Offensive rank: 5th

Defensive rank: 14th

Key addition: CB Nolan Carroll, who signed a three-year, $10 million deal in the offseason

Big question: Without running back Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys turn to two former 1,000-yard rushers, Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden. How much production will they provide until Elliott returns?

New York Giants

Last season: 11-5

Offensive rank: 25th

Defensive rank: 10th

Key addition: WR Brandon Marshall, who signed a two-year, $11 million contract

Big question: Marshall and rookie tight end Evan Engram boost Eli Manning’s options. But, who is going to run the ball well enough to drag this offense out of the bottom third of the league?

Washington Redskins

Last season: 8-7-1

Offensive rank: 3rd

Defensive rank: 28th

Key addition: DC Greg Manusky, the Redskins‘ third defensive coordinator in the last four years

Big question: Is it the coordinator or the personnel that is holding back the Redskins‘ defense? They changed both in the offseason. Again.

Philadelphia Eagles

Last season: 7-9

Offensive rank: 25th

Defensive rank: 22nd

Key addition: WR Alshon Jeffery, a former Pro-Bowl wideout signed a one-year deal for $9.5 million

Big question: Is Carson Wentz the franchise quarterback he looked to be at the start of last season?

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