Home Sports The NFL’s best division? How the former NFC Least changed its reputation

The NFL’s best division? How the former NFC Least changed its reputation

by Atlanta Business Journal

By Ralph Vacchiano
FOX Sports NFC East Writer

There have been plenty of jokes at the NFC East’s expense over the past few years, and the division has collectively deserved every one of them. But four games into this season, nobody is laughing at this division anymore.

It has the NFL’s best combined record at 11-5. Three of its teams are 3-1 or better. It has the NFL’s lone undefeated team, which just happens to look like a real Super Bowl contender. The NFC East is 8-2 against teams outside its own division and 4-0 against teams from the AFC.

Maybe it won’t last, but that’s still as good a first quarter of the season as anyone could have expected from a division that had become known as the NFC Least in recent years and even crowned a champion with a 7-9 record just two years ago.

Here’s a look at the NFL’s best division at the quarter pole. Let the good times roll …

Team to Beat: Philadelphia Eagles

It’s obviously the Eagles, and not just because they’re the only undefeated team in the NFL. It’s because of how they’ve gotten to 4-0. They are one of the highest-scoring teams in the NFL. They have the No. 2 offense and the No. 3 defense. They’re averaging 165.25 yards per game on the ground, which is more than last season when they led the NFL in rushing. And it’s only that low because QB Jalen Hurts is off to a phenomenal start (66.7 completion percentage, 1,120 yards, 4 touchdowns, 2 interceptions). They might have the best secondary in football and they lead the league in sacks (16). No team has a better offensive line. They rank second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.

The Eagles have it all. So, really, forget the NFC East. They’re probably the team to beat in the entire NFC.

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MVP: Jalen Hurts

It’s hard to find a quarterback in the NFL who has taken a bigger leap than the 24-year-old Hurts. He has always been electric on the ground, but his passing has been so crisp. Even his two interceptions were right off the hands of receivers (though to be fair, neither were perfect throws). And he’s still a weapon on the ground, where he has 205 yards and four touchdowns. It sure has helped that the Eagles added WR A.J. Brown (25 catches, 404 yards, 1 touchdown) to his arsenal, but Hurts is still playing a heck of a lot better. 

Giants running back Saquon Barkley (463 rushing yards) deserves mention here, too, because without him the 3-1 Giants would likely be 0-4.

Best Defensive Player: Micah Parsons

The Eagles have run off three consecutive Defensive Player of the Week award winners. But with all due respect to cornerback Darius Slay (Week 2), defensive end Brandon Graham (Week 3) and linebacker Haason Reddick (Week 3), there’s no better defensive player in the division than the Cowboys‘ superstar linebacker. Parsons’ four sacks so far don’t tell the story of how disruptive he is. He was basically unblockable against the Giants in Week 3, even though he didn’t have a sack, but that cleared the way for DeMarcus Lawrence to have three. 

The Eagles have the best defense, but they’re spreading the wealth. Parsons is the most consistently dominant from game to game. Every offensive coordinator in the division will agree with that.

Biggest Surprise: New York Giants

With all due respect to Cooper Rush‘s 3-0 run (so far) filling in for Dak Prescott as the Cowboys’ quarterback, did anyone see the Giants’ 3-1 start coming? Yes, they have been fortunate, and it sure has helped that two of their wins came at home against two really bad teams — the Panthers (1-3) and Bears (2-2). 

But they are still a flawed team that didn’t do a lot to improve in the offseason, has the same issues at quarterback with Daniel Jones, and a still-struggling offensive line. Maybe the winning won’t last much longer, but new coach Brian Daboll sure does have them believing. And so does Barkley, who leads the NFL in rushing and looks very much like his old self.

Biggest Bust: Kenny Golladay

It’s hard to find a bigger bust than the Giants receiver, who’s in the second season of a four-year, $72 million contract. The fact that Golladay can’t earn a spot in the game plan on a team with Richie James and David Sills as its top receivers says it all. Even after the Giants lost Sterling Shepard to a torn ACL, Golladay was still down the depth chart. And now he’s out with an injured knee. Two years ago he was supposed to be the Giants’ next great receiver. Now they’d trade him or cut him if they could.

Best Free-agent Addition: James Bradberry

It feels like a toss-up between two Eagles: linebacker Reddick and cornerback Bradberry. But Bradberry gets the nod for two reasons. One is that he has been consistently good through the first four games, while Reddick got off to a bit of a slow start. And the other is that Bradberry is a bargain, joining the Eagles on a one-year, $7.25 million deal after the salary cap-strapped Giants cut him in May. Bradberry is essentially the No. 2 corner on the Eagles behind Darius Slay, but he has gone step-for-step with Slay this season, with two interceptions and four passes defensed. He’s playing at a Pro Bowl level again.

Rookie of the Quarter Year: Jahan Dotson

The Commanders‘ receiver clinched this in Week 1, when he had two touchdowns, including the game-winner in Washington’s Opening Day (and lone) win. He has 12 catches for 152 yards and four touchdowns through his first four games, which are good numbers for a No. 3 receiver on a struggling offense. 

Unfortunately, that may be it for a while. Dotson has a hamstring injury that coach Ron Rivera says should keep him out one-to-two weeks — maybe longer, since hamstring injuries tend to linger.

Hottest Seat: Mike McCarthy 

Sure, the Cowboys are 3-1, mostly without their starting quarterback, but that hasn’t done anything for the job security of the head coach — not with Sean Payton potentially available. McCarthy might have needed a deep run in the playoffs to keep his job anyway, but it’s likely the 3-1 start without Prescott has only raised the expectations of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. He surely expects them to go on a run when Prescott returns, and McCarthy had better make sure they deliver.

Game to Watch in Quarter 2: Cowboys at Eagles, Week 7

The Sunday night game on Oct. 16 could be huge, since both teams have perilous trips to the West Coast this week (Eagles at Arizona, Cowboys at the Los Angeles Rams). This game will be the Cowboys’ chance to make a statement that they will be contenders in the division and won’t let the Eagles run away with it. And it could be the Eagles’ chance to really open up a big, and maybe insurmountable, early lead. As a sidebar, it maybe, possibly, could be the return of Dak Prescott, too.

Playoff Picture 

Pencil the Eagles in, probably as division champs, barring a shocking, total collapse. There really isn’t another team in the division as good or as complete. The Cowboys have the capability of making a run at Philly, but they need to prove they can do it first — like on Oct. 16. Chances are, the Cowboys are playing for a wild-card spot, and as long as they get Prescott back soon, they should be able to do it in the weaker of the two conferences.

Could the NFC East get two wild cards? That seems doubtful. The Commanders (1-3) put themselves in a huge early hole and now injuries are starting to pile up. If they want to make a run, they need to start their surge quickly. And as for the Giants, enjoy the winning record while it lasts. They deserve plenty of credit for what they’ve done, but a reality check is coming with games against the Packers in London, the Ravens at home, at Jacksonville and at Seattle the next four weeks. If they can somehow split those four games, then maybe. 

But then, after the bye, they still have to deal with Philly twice.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys. He spent 22 years covering the Giants, Jets and NFL at large for SNY and the New York Daily News. He can be found on Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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