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NFC East Notebook: Midseason review of the league’s worst division

Let’s check out the headlines from around the division this past week

NFL: NOV 01 Cowboys at Eagles Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s the time of year for midseason grades, though grading the NFC East feels like rubbing salt in a wound. But alas, we dive in.

At the halfway point of the season, the Philadelphia Eagles are leading the division with a 3-4-1 record. Washington sits at second place at 2-5. The Cowboys are 2-6 and the New York Giants are in last place at 1-7. We’ve documented the woes of the NFC East in this notebook before. The four teams have eight combined wins and just two victories against non-conference opponents.

But each team, for all of its overall mediocrity, has some defining positives and negatives that stick out more than most.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the teams around the division.

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles offense is seventh-worst in the league in total yards per game with 330 and have scored 186 total points this season. The offense is led by Carson Wentz who has been unpredictable at best through eight games. He has thrown for 1,883 yards and 12 touchdowns, but also leads the league in turnovers with 16. Wentz has become inconsistent with his accuracy and unreliable. Yet, he shows flashes of promise when the team is behind, leading the Eagles to comeback wins against the San Francisco 49ers and Giants. It seems like Wentz has another gear in clutch situations, but that version of him is often absent.

When Wentz is not a liability though, the Eagles have proven to have some depth on offense. Boston Scott has stepped up in the absence of Miles Sanders and has made some notable big plays, including a game-winning catch against the Giants.

In the wide receiver group, Travis Fulgham has emerged as one of the Eagles’ top targets. The receiving corps was considered a weakness heading into the season and injuries to Alshon Jeffrey, DeSean Jackson and Jalen Reagor at different points throughout have not helped. But since re-signing with the team, Fulgham has caught 29 passes for 435 yards and four touchdowns. With tight end Zach Ertz on Injured Reserve and Dallas Goedert also missing several weeks with a fractured ankle, Fulgham has been an important addition.

The offensive line has been hit particularly hard by injuries but veteran center Jason Kelce has anchored the group. Despite the changes in position week-to-week, the Eagles have managed to scrap together a respectable o-line.

Meanwhile, on the defensive side of the ball, the group seems to be making small improvements each week. They have been placed in tough situations due to all of the turnovers on the offensive side of the ball, and yet have managed to keep the Eagles “relatively” competitive.

Overall grade: C+

Washington Football Team

For all of the change and uncertainty at quarterback, the Washington defense has lived up to its hype this season. The defense is ranked fourth in the league in yards allowed per game with 309.1 and amongst the top 10 in the league in total points allowed with 165.

This is the same defense that finished the 2019 season ranked among the league’s worst in almost every statistic. Now, they have allowed the fewest passing yards per game (185.9) and totaled the sixth-most sacks (22).

First-round pick Chase Young has lived up to expectations, leading all NFL rookies in sacks with 2.5, and is second in quarterback hits with seven and second in tackles for loss with five. Young combined with Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Montez Sweat have proven to be a formidable front.

Of course, there are weaknesses. The defense has allowed a 40.3 percent opponent conversion rate on third down and they give up too many explosive plays, tying for most in the league in plays allowed of 40 yards or more with nine.

Despite the areas for improvement, this defense has allowed an offense that is ranked amongst the worst in the league to be competitive in games. The Washington offense is ranked third-worst in yards allowed per game with 292.7 and ranked second-to-last in the league in points scored with 133.

Ron Rivera elected to bench former first-round pick Dwayne Haskins Jr. after the sophomore QB had his best performance of the season in Week 4 against the Baltimore Ravens. Former Carolina Panther quarterback Kyle Allen is now the starter and has been neither good or bad in his three starts, throwing four touchdowns, one interception and one fumble. Wide receiver Terry McLaurin continues to be the bright spot for the offense and one of the only reliable performers.

Overall grade: C

Dallas Cowboys

When Dak Prescott went down in Week 5 against the Giants, the Cowboys’ season went with him. Just when it seemed like the quarterback situation could not get worse in Dallas, backup Andy Dalton was placed on the COVID list and somehow seventh-round pick Ben DiNucci got the start on primetime Sunday Night Football against the Eagles.

Now, it has been reported that Garrett Gilbert will get the start against the Steelers Sunday, marking the fourth signal-caller the Cowboys have had under center this season - and we are only halfway through.

This season is no longer about winning for Dallas, but surviving. The offense looks lost without Prescott under center. Ezekiel Elliott has underperformed throughout the first half of the season. The Cowboys are also reportedly preparing to play without Elliott Sunday against the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers. Last time Elliott was unable to play, the Cowboys scored in the single digits for three straight games for the first time in franchise history. After scoring just nine points against the Eagles last week, Dallas is poised for its second-straight single-point performance against the dominant Steelers.

It hasn’t helped Elliott that the offensive line has been a revolving door of bad talent. Heading into the season, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Travis Frederick and La’el Collins were poised to bring strong protection to the Cowboys up front. But now entering Week 9, only Martin remains active.

On the defensive side of the ball, DeMarcus Lawrence has been one of the few positives. Since returning from a knee injury, Lawrence has four sacks in the last three games. In last week’s game alone, Lawrence recorded three tackles for loss, one sack and two quarterback hits.

As far as looking ahead to the future, the Cowboys draft class does provide a source of hope. CeeDeee Lamb, Trevon Diggs and Tyler Biadasz have met expectations and should hopefully only improve with time.

However, the same cannot be said for the Cowboys as a whole in the 2020 season.

Overall grade: D+