DALLAS — The real title of this article ought to be "Who can lose the least in the NFC East?" But I figured that might be too confusing, even though it's true. With Washington (2-2), Philadelphia (2-3), Dallas (2-3), and New York (1-4) at or below .500, it's not a good look for the division with the most Super Bowl wins.
The last time the NFC East was this la basura was in 2015 when Dallas, Washington, and Philadelphia each held 2-3 marks but the Giants were atop the standings with a 3-2 record.
What would it take for either of these teams to win the division? Let's take a look at each of their strengths, and we are going to presume that these strengths hold forth throughout the rest of the season.
What Washington does really well through the first five weeks of the season, but just four games on their schedule, is they don't turn the ball over with just six giveaways all season, ranking ninth-fewest in the NFL. They also give up the 10th-fewest points per game at 21.8. Again, playing just four games into five weeks of 2018 kind of skews the numbers.
Nonetheless, since 2014, 22/44 teams that have committed between three to five turnovers through their first four games have made the playoffs. Once again, 13 of those 22 teams had playoff-winning quarterbacks. Current Washington field general Alex Smith is not on that list. In fact, he has not won a playoff game since 2015 when he was quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, who embarrassed the Houston Texans 30-0 in the wildcard round of the AFC playoffs.
Since Smith left San Francisco in 2012, he has a passer rating of 100.2 in the final five games of the season. This year, he has a 92.5, which is the third-highest through the first four games for Smith since 2013. If Smith, who led Kansas City to the playoffs in all but one of his seasons under center, can have the same production, Washington would be a good candidate.
What about their yards per game? Since 2014, 5/17 teams that gave up between 1,250 to 1,350 through their first four games made the playoffs. All but two had playoff-winning quarterbacks in the '17 Jaguars and the '17 Vikings, which underscores how much of a X-factor Smith's play down the stretch will be for Washington.
For the Super Bowl champions, they are seventh in points surrendered at 20.8 per game and 10th in yards surrendered per game at 343.2. Since 2014, 19/58 teams that gave up between 100-120 points through the first five games of the season ended up going to the playoffs. Three of those 19 teams did not have playoff-winning quarterbacks on the roster ('14 Cardinals, '15 Bengals, '16 Texans). The rest were proven winners.
While Carson Wentz isn't technically a playoff-winning quarterback, as backup Nick Foles earned all those postseason W's en route to the franchise's first world championship since 1960, we can give the offensive brain trust the benefit of the doubt.
Since 2014, 11/23 teams that gave up between 1,700 and 1,800 yards in the first five games made the playoffs, and one of them was Philadelphia. Six of those teams had playoff-winning quarterbacks. Again, when factoring in the quarterback position with the Eagles is solid from a personnel and coaching standpoint, they seem the most likely to turn things around.
The only thing great about the offense is the yards per carry at 5.2, ranking second-best in the NFL. They even have the NFL's leading rusher in Ezekiel Elliott. Certainly there has to be some optimism, and there kind of is. Since 2014, there has been but one team that averaged 5.2 and 5.5 yards per carry in their first five games: the 2014 Seattle Seahawks. Let's try to delay the inevitable as much as we can.
Dallas' defense is fifth in the NFL in points against and eighth in the NFL in yards surrendered. Since 2014, there were 23 teams that gave up between 1,650 and 1,750 yards. 10 of those teams playoffs, and five of those teams had quarterbacks who had not won a playoff game.
Perhaps the biggest source of optimism is the '15 Texans. Not only did they start 1-4, but they started four different quarterbacks, one of them being Brandon Weeden. On defense, their only meritorious defender was defensive end J.J. Watt, who captured his third NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Houston's defense finished with 25 takeaways with 14 of them being interceptions. For the Cowboys defense to get 25 turnovers, they will need to get at least two per game the rest of the way, the same as the Texans did, who had two through the first five games.
Now, about the quarterback situation. Dak Prescott is averaging 192.2 yards per game. For quarterbacks who threw between 975 and 1,050 yards through the first five games, one of them was Russell Wilson in 2014 with 978, just three yards fewer than Prescott.
The real stats are only 3/9 of those quarterbacks led their teams to the playoffs: Wilson, Cam Newton in 2014 and Teddy Bridgewater in 2015. They had passer ratings of 99.7, 94.6, and 80.4 respectively. If Dallas is to win the division, it is going to have to be thanks to the defense and Prescott protecting the football.
Aside from providing the rest of the NFC East schadenfreude, the Giants are really good at pass defense. They rank eighth in the NFL at giving up 229.4 passing yards per game, and they are third-best in the NFL with just six passing touchdowns surrendered through five games. Then, again, they did play the Cowboys, which skews the numbers a little.
Regardless, since 2014, 25/62 teams that give up between five to eight passing touchdowns through the first give games made the playoffs. The playoff-winning quarterback aspect is somewhat negligible since Eli Manning hasn't won a playoff game since 2011 when he beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. Right now, the Giants are 23rd and 25th in points for and also total yards.
Since 2014, teams that started the season producing between 1,650 and 1,750 yards of total offense through five games made the playoffs 6/32 times. Among the points for, since 2014, teams that scored between 100 and 125 points in the first five games made the playoffs 17/51 times. If the Giants are to take the division, like always in the Manning era, the defense is going to have to be a bigger part of it.
The '98 Cowboys became the first NFC East team to go 8-0 in the division. They were 2-6 when facing the rest of their schedule. Right now, Dallas is 1-0 in the division and, of course, the Giants 0-1 in the NFC East. Since 2002, when realignment occurred and there were four teams per four divisions per two conferences (32 teams), there have been 14 teams with 9-7 records or worse that made the playoffs compared to two from 1990-2001, with 1990 being significant as that was when the NFL added an extra wildcard team per conference. So, since 2002, it has gone from a race against the rest of the conference to just staying ahead of the knuckleheads in your division.
At this point, it's too early to rule out teams like Dallas and Washington while safe enough to write off New York or perceive Philadelphia as the favorite. Like Bill Parcells said, by Thanksgiving, you are what you are, and hopefully by that time the division starts to take shape.
Who do you think will take the currently underperforming NFC East? Make your predictions with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.