Where the Cowboys stand in the NFC East

DALLAS - At this stage of the Cowboys season, it might be premature to take stock of the NFC East—but like most fans, I’m eager to learn as much as I can about our main rivals.

How much can we learn about the division from only two weeks of play? Perhaps not much. But some indicators matter more than others at this stage, which we’ll explore in depth below.

For rankings and odds to win the NFC East, we’ll turn to ESPN’s Football Power Index, one of the better predictive models for evaluating NFL teams. FPI accounts for quarterback injuries when calculating team strength and playoff odds, making it a particularly useful tool for assessing the Cowboys playoff prospects.

For general breakdowns of team strengths and weaknesses, we’ll focus on how offenses and defenses have impacted the scoring margin in the passing game. Although the running game can be a critical strategic component of team success, the passing game remains the most important part of football. We'll measure this using expected points added (EPA) from Pro Football Reference.

Here’s where each team stands, looking forward:

New York Giants — 2-0 (1-0 in NFC East)
FPI rank: No. 19
Pass offense EPA: +17.7 (No. 13 in NFL)
Pass defense EPA: -6.52 (No. 11)
Odds to win division: 45.6 percent

The Giants are perhaps the safest bet to win the division this year. Although FPI projects them as slightly less dangerous than the Eagles going forward, the Giants already have a division win in their back pocket and have yet to lose to a division opponent, giving New York an early edge in tiebreaker scenarios.

The offense has receiving weapons like Odell Beckham Jr. and the newly acquired Sterling Shepard with a veteran quarterback in Eli Manning who, unlike Carson Wentz in Philadelphia, is a known commodity. Early returns from the revamped defense have shown promise, as well.

Philadelphia Eagles — 2-0 (0-0)
FPI rank: No. 16
Pass offense EPA: +13.6 (No. 16)
Pass defense EPA: +13.4 (No. 2)
Odds to win division: 35.7 percent

For all the hype surrounding the Eagles No. 2 overall pick, Wentz has directed a fairly average passing offense through the first two weeks. That’s not a knock on the rookie quarterback, but a call for more cautious evaluation. The Eagles are a particularly interesting case: Their margin of victory is notably higher than that of their NFC East rivals so far, but EPA suggests that's more a function of turnover dominance than an efficient passing attack.

That said, the Eagles defense once again appears to be the most formidable in the division, even if it can't maintain takeaways at this rate. The team’s prospects this year will likely rest on Wentz’s development and performance vs. NFC East opponents, against which he is so far untested.

Dallas Cowboys — 1-1 (1-1)
FPI rank: No. 22
Pass offense EPA: +28.1 (No. 4)
Pass defense EPA: -16.9 (No. 18)
Odds to win division: 16.5 percent

The Cowboys have an ace in the hole named Tony Romo. When healthy, Romo is the most unstoppable force in the division. But the Cowboys face a serious hurdle: They have to provide Romo with a decent standing in the division when he returns from injury.

To do that, the team is relying on rookie quarterback Dak Prescott without the support of the smothering defense from which Wentz benefits. Although Prescott has exceeded every expectation so far, and has probably outplayed Wentz in the early part of the season, it’s unreasonable to expect he can carry the team as long as the Cowboys pass defense remains this ineffective—especially if you adjust for its two gift-wrapped interceptions.

If the Cowboys pass defense can return to the near-league-average level it maintained the last two seasons, then Romo has a shot to steal the division from the early favorites in New York and Philadelphia. Without that assurance, however, Dallas faces a steep uphill climb.

Washington Redskins: 0-2 (0-1)
FPI rank: No. 28
Pass offense EPA: 16.0 (No. 14)
Pass defense EPA: -36.4 (No. 30)
Odds to win division: 2.3 percent

The reigning NFC East champions are bad, and they should feel bad. They wouldn't have won last year either, if not for Romo's injuries. They don't deserve a full entry. I'm still sore.

How are you feeling about the Cowboys' chances in the NFC East? Let Daniel know on Twitter @Daniel_Houston.

Copyright 2016 WFAA


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