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NFC East Roundup: Dallas rising? Eagles into the abyss?

Here’s the need-to-know news around the NFC East for this week.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles
Ezekiel Elliott and Dallas suddenly are relevant again in the NFC playoff race.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Ezekiel Elliott hurdled the Cowboys back into relevance, at least for another week.

The first-place Redskins are “winning ugly,” as coach Jay Gruden put it, but still winning.

And the Eagles continue to stare into the abyss known as The Super Bowl Hangover, with one prominent lineman now wondering where the locker room accountability has gone.

Welcome to another week in the NFC East.

A measure of clarity could come this weekend, as the trio each faces an intriguing matchup. Or, the mediocre division could be mashed up even tighter as the stretch run to the playoffs begins.

Last and certainly least, the New York Giants (2-7) are coming off only their fifth win since the start of 2017 and host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-6). (I’m setting the over/under on total Eli Manning/Ryan Fitzpatrick interceptions at five.)

Here are some of the biggest stories around the NFC East for this week:

Dallas Cowboys

Desperation Bowl in Atlanta? It’s a bit early for that — but not by much.

The Cowboys (4-5) face the equally desperate Falcons (4-5), having quieted the calls for coach Jason Garrett’s head — well, somewhat.

A rumor is circulating that the University of Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley — one of college football’s rising young coaching stars — has caught Jerry Jones’ interest. Riley’s grooming of Baker Mayfield certainly doesn’t hurt. It could be a deciding factor if Jones decides to fire Garrett, given the struggles of Dak Prescott over his past 25 games following a Pro Bowl rookie season in 2016.

For the record, Jones this week called Riley “outstanding” and his performance at OU “real impressive.” But he also said the Riley rumor was “total speculation.”

Despite the talk, the Cowboys could leap into first place if they beat the Falcons and then the Redskins on Thanksgiving.

Elliott again showed he is an elite back. He leaped over Eagles DB Tre Sullivan for a 32-yard gain and finished with 151 rushing yards on 19 carries in the bounce-back, 27-20 victory over the defending champions.

More good news? The new Prescott-Amari Cooper combination has been productive (six receptions for 75 yards versus the Eagles) in a small sample. And rookie LB Leighton Vander Esch just keeps getting better. He earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors after recording 13 tackles and an interception against Philadelphia.

On the injury front, Pro Bowl LT Tyron Smith (back) and All-Pro RG Zack Martin (knee) returned to practice Thursday after sitting out a day earlier.

For the Falcons, Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones (broken foot) has been activated, although his status for Sunday is uncertain. He hasn’t played since the opener.

Philadelphia Eagles

Time is running out, and the Eagles (4-5) know it.

And Nick Foles probably can’t save them this time.

But what is particularly concerning is C Jason Kelce announcing that he has noticed less accountability in the Philadelphia locker room after its listless loss — coming off a bye — to Dallas.

”We had guys like Brent Celek who had been here a long time who was very accountable,” Kelce said. “Torrey Smith who had been in the league for a long time. Very accountable. Mack Hollins was a guy that gave great effort. LeGarrette Blount and all of these running backs … That’s what we’re missing. We’re missing that accountability.”


Celek retired. Smith was traded to the Carolina Panthers. Blount signed with the Detroit Lions.

“There was a much greater level of accountability from a cohesive standpoint of everybody working together,” Kelce said.

The Eagles’ hopes of defending their title might dim further Sunday when they head to New Orleans to face the Saints (8-1) and forever young MVP candidate Drew Brees (123.8 QB rating, 21-1 TD-to-INT ratio, 77.3 percent completion rate).

Of course, playing the first-place Saints, who are vying for the top seed in the NFC, adds motivation the Eagles may have been lacking.

The Saints game “is as big as they come,” TE Zach Ertz said.

The Eagles will need that motivation, as their remaining opponents have a combined record of 40-23, the toughest schedule in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. After the Saints, they face the Giants, Redskins (twice), Cowboys, L.A. Rams (9-1) and Houston Texans (6-3).

And there was more bad news on the injury front. CB Ronald Darby is out for the season with a torn ACL. Darby joins RB Jay Ajayi, S Rodney McLeod and DE Derek Barnett among the now nine players who have suffered season-ending injuries.

Compounding the loss is an injury to CB Jalen Mills (foot), who will miss his second straight game. However CB Sidney Jones (hamstring) could return after missing three games and join Rasul Douglas as the starting corners.

Meanwhile, the status of RT Lane Johnson (knee) is uncertain, which could force Halapoulivaati Vaitai back into the lineup. RB Darren Sproles (hamstring) remains out, but DT Timmy Jernigan (NFI list) could make his season debut.

Washington Redskins

By most metrics, the outlook should be bright in the nation’s capital.

After finding a way to beat FitzMagic and the Bucs last week despite yielding 406 passing yards and playing behind an offensive line decimated by injury, Washington (6-3) holds a two-game lead.

The Redskins are tied for the fewest turnovers (seven) in the NFL and sit third in turnover differential (11).

QB Alex Smith (90.7 rating; 10-3 TD-to-INT ratio) is exactly who they thought they were getting when they traded with Kansas City to acquire him. He’s a professional leader who makes few mistakes. And while the rest of the league seems to be putting up video game stats, Washington was never going to be that kind of team, no matter who the quarterback was.

But optimism can be elusive in D.C.

Washington hosts the Texans, who have won six straight, stand atop the AFC South and are coming off a bye. It doesn’t help that LT Trent Williams (thumb) is out again, and RB Chris Thompson (ribs) and WR Jamison Crowder (ankle) probably will join him. WR Trey Quinn was activated from IR, likely to fill Crowder’s place.

On the bright side for the Redskins, the Texans are one of only two teams remaining on their schedule with a winning record (the Titans are the other).

But the Redskins, Eagles and Cowboys still have plenty of games against each other in the season’s final six weeks, leaving clarity — and predictions — an elusive target.