Anyone can see the NFC East is the NFL’s worst division in 2020. All four teams are below .500 going into Week 8. But make the mistake of lumping the Eagles in with the Cowboys, Giants and Washington at your own risk — and don’t sleep on them as NFC title contenders.
Dallas is an injury-riddled, defense-lacking dysfunctional mess without Dak Prescott under Mike McCarthy. New York lost Saquon Barkley from its offense and is operating with a transitioning defense under a rookie coach, Joe Judge. Washington is in full defensive-minded rebuilding mode with Ron Rivera.
Philadelphia, too has been bit hard by the injury bug, especially on offense, where the line, tight ends, wide receiver corps and backfield — or everything around quarterback Carson Wentz — has faced some significant short- and long-term losses.
All four teams also haven’t benefited from luck in the schedule rotation. By drawing the mighty NFC West and strong AFC North, that’s at least seven games against teams with current winning records inter-division, before getting into other tough intra-conference foes.
It would be easy to dismiss the Eagles, in first place at 2-4-1, about to take full advantage of a bad division again and get another home game in the playoffs. Keep in mind, the Giants and Washington weren’t supposed to be good, regardless of their division location. The only thing that has changed in the NFC East is the disturbing all-out decline of the Cowboys.
Instead of the Eagles needing to overcome attrition again and clipping the Cowboys in the end like they did as 9-7 division champions a season ago, the state of division buys Philadelphia time to build into a true threat to dethrone the 49ers.
The Eagles did get a big early win at San Francisco. They took Washington lightly in Week 1 and had to grind just to get a tie with the Bengals in Week 3. Their other losses were a blowout against the Rams and fighting efforts against the Steelers and the Ravens.
Then consider this: the Eagles’ gauntlet against the AFC North and NFC West isn’t over, with the Browns, Seahawks and Cardinals looming in the second half. As the returning first-place team in the NFC East, they also draw the Packers and the Saints in back-to-back weeks to open December — right after those Cleveland and Seattle matchups.
At this point, the Eagles can probably win the division at even 6-9-1, by virtue of simply winning their four remaining division games, starting with the Cowboys at home on Sunday night in Week 8. Their ceiling is just a little higher than last season, at 9-6-1.
In the end, whatever the Eagles’ record is, they tend to become a better team later in the season under Doug Pederson. This time, there’s no question they will be battle-tested, with the potential of half their schedule, or eight opponents, making the total expanded playoff field of 14. They might end up facing every NFC playoff team except the Buccaneers, which is insane.
Wentz, after a rough start because of protection and weaponry issues, has once again adjusted to his “next men up” to play well and keep lifting his supporting cast. Travis Fulgham has been a revelation as his new go-to “X” wide receiver with Alshon Jeffery still shelved with a foot injury. DeSean Jackson can’t stay healthy again, but rookie first-round “Z” Jalen Reagor is now ready to return to help as the speedy deep threat.
The line is holding up better with Lane Johnson having dodged major injury a couple times. The backfield needs the feature qualities of Miles Sanders, but Boston Scott has proved to be a key sub with his receiving skills again. At tight end, Zach Ertz, who looked shot before his ankle injury, isn’t as big of a loss as you think, with Dallas Goedert about to return and former Pack Richard Rodgers filling in well.
Wentz is doing whatever it takes with whoever’s out there with his arm and legs to put the Eagles in position to win games. Their offense seems to have duct-tape around it now, but it is developing to be as dangerous and as versatile as expected to the point it can win some shootouts with all the loaded offensive opponents left.
In relation to the 49ers, Seahawks, Packers, Saints, Rams, Buccaneers, Cardinals, the Eagles have the strongest overall defensive line, anchored by stalwarts Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham. They are stout against the traditional running game. They are right up with the Rams and Buccaneers as one of the NFC’s top pass-rushing teams.
Sure, the Eagles’ glaring weakness at linebacker exists, but they are getting better there ever since former CFL star Alex Singleton was elevated to starter. In the secondary, Darius Slay isn’t the Lions shutdown cornerback he once was, but he brings needed stability.
The Eagles aren’t the Cowboys, Giants and Washington in the fact they have been a consistent playoff team, only three years removed from Super Bowl 52 champion status. Pederson gets a lot of heat for some of his schematic and situational decisions, but in the end, he has the ring to match Pete Carroll and Sean Payton. He was able to help a formidable NFC champion finish in the Super Bowl of late, something Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan fell short of doing.
With Prescott down, Daniel Jones in a sophomore slump and Washington already flipping to Kyle Allen, it’s easy to see Wentz gives the Eagles the major QB edge in the division. But when it comes down to it, Wentz is also capable of winning high-scoring duels with Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Tom Brady.
Based on the Eagles’ current record without looking the challenges related to their body of work, it would be natural to think they’re also a bad team, only slightly better than Washington, the Giants and the Cowboys — especially after losing to Washington and beating the Giants by a point. But unlike those three teams, the Eagles are soaring on an upward trajectory with a big second-half improvement to come.
Don’t be fooled by what the Eagles have looked like through the first two months. They already have proved several times hey have the talent, depth, quarterback, coach, resilience and mettle to emerge in a wide-open, top-heavy NFC. The East may be least, but no one should be surprised if the Birds become beasts.
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