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NFC East Notebook: Dallas is the real deal, Washington’s rebuild and Ertz’s departure from Philly

Here are the headlines from around the division this past week

San Francisco 49ers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Let’s talk logistics.

New York fans already know what the upcoming Giants schedule entails: games against the Los Angeles Rams, Carolina Panthers, Kansas City Chiefs, Las Vegas Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Washington Football Team, meanwhile, will face the following teams in the upcoming weeks: Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos, Buccaneers, Panthers and Seattle Seahawks.

The Philadelphia Eagles, who just lost to the Bucs on Thursday Night Football, have the following slate: Raiders, Detroit Lions, Los Angeles Chargers, Broncos and New Orleans Saints.

The Dallas Cowboys, who are leading the NFC East with a 4-1 record, are poised to play these teams: New England Patriots, Minnesota Vikings, Broncos, Atlanta Falcons, Chiefs, Raiders and Saints.

For all four teams in the NFC East, the final four-five weeks of the season include division matchups.

These schedule logistics are worth considering as we enter Week 6 of the regular season. The website, powerrankingsguru.com, updates its strength of schedule weekly to reflect upcoming games. The strength of an opponent is determined by their rankings in the site’s composite NFL power rankings. Here is where the NFC east teams stand with one being the hardest schedule and 32 being the easiest.

2. Washington Football Team

5. New York Giants

20. Dallas Cowboys

32. Philadelphia Eagles

Upon first glance, it seems unfair that teams like Washington and New York have two of the most difficult strength of schedules remaining in the league. But each team’s schedule is determined by how they played the previous season. Each team plays 17 games, including six total against division counterparts. A team plays four teams from another division within its conference on a rotating three-year cycle and plays four teams from a division in the other conference on a rotating four-year cycle. The two remaining intraconference games are based on a team’s prior year’s standings. These games match a first-place team against the first-place teams in the two same-conference divisions the team is not scheduled to play that season.

All of this is to say - because the Football Team won the NFC East last season, they are facing more difficult opponents this season. The Giants came in second, the Cowboys third and the Eagles fourth - all of which reflect exactly where each teams falls on the overall strength of schedule rankings.

Schedule analysis begs the question: “Is a team winning because it is playing bad teams or is a team winning simply because it is good?”

The remainder of the season will certainly answer that question for us.

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

Washington Football Team

A quote went somewhat-viral this week from Washington head coach Ron Rivera. When asked on Junks Radio Tuesday about the defense having a long way to go, Rivera said the following (below is an excerpt):

“You almost want to say, ‘Man, I wish 7-9 last year wouldn’t have been good enough to win the division that way the expectations would have been much lower and would’ve been a little bit easier.’”

It’s the kind of quote that needs to be read a few times over.

At first, it sounds like Rivera did not want to win the division. It also sounds like he wants lower expectations for his team, as opposed to higher. Both of which are uncharacteristic statements to hear from a head coach.

A second or third read, however, illustrates something deeper that critics of Washington seem to forget: This is still a rebuilding franchise.

The Football Team won three games in 2019 and seven in 2020. This is Rivera’s second season coaching a predominantly young team. When Rivera arrived in Washington, he preached long-term growth and success. Last season was a triumph but it was also just one step in the right direction.

For now, this team is going to retire safety Sean Taylor No. 21 jersey Sunday, making him just the third player in franchise history to receive the honor, and try to defeat the struggling Chiefs.

It’s too early to count Washington out when it has not even had time to find its footing yet.

Dallas Cowboys

Meanwhile, the Cowboys increasingly look like the real deal.

Dallas has scored 35+ points in three straight games for the first time since 2014. The franchise would go on to win the division that season. The offense is ranked second in the league in yards per game and third in points.

This offense though, was expected to be good. It is the defense that is causing people to speculate on just how far the Cowboys could go this season. Below is an excerpt on Neil Paine’s story in FiveThirtyEight:

“It has been excelling on both sides of the ball — a rarity for this franchise in recent seasons — with quarterback Dak Prescott leading the NFL’s third-best offense by schedule-adjusted expected points added (EPA) per game, and the defense rising to sixth-best in its first year under coordinator Dan Quinn. In the EPA era (since 2006), we haven’t seen a Cowboys team this complete, nor perhaps one with a path to the playoffs so clearly laid out.”

The Cowboys focused on their defense in this year’s NFL Draft and it has proven to be worth it. Trevon Diggs has an NFL-leading six interceptions and linebacker Micah Parsons has 10 quarterback hits and 2.5 sacks. In his first year as the team’s defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn has turned this unit around.

Entering this season, it was only a question of whether the Cowboys’ defense could be good enough to allow this team to win. Through five games, the answer is yes.

Philadelphia Eagles

In Philadelphia, the Eagles traded three-time Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz to the Arizona Cardinals for cornerback Tay Gowan and a 2022 fifth-round draft pick.

At 30 years old, Ertz has spent his entire NFL career with the Eagles since being drafted in 2013. He scored the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl LII against the New England Patriots, helping to secure Philadelphia’s first Super Bowl title.

The relationship between Ertz and the Eagles became strained when both parties were unable to agree on a contract extension this past offseason. Now, Ertz will go from playing for the 2-3 Eagles to the undefeated Cardinals. With Arizona losing their primary tight end Maxx Williams to a knee injury this week, Ertz is expected to play a major role in the offense.

“Zach Ertz built a special legacy in Philadelphia. Talented, tough, and passionate, he helped to establish our team’s culture and played a vital role in our success over the years,” Eagles CEO Jeffrey Lurie said. “Zach created so many memories that will live on forever, from setting numerous franchise and league records, to reaching across the end zone for the game-winning touchdown in our first-ever Super Bowl championship.”

The Eagles continue to look like an increasingly different team than the one that won the Super Bowl in 2017.