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NFC East Notebook: Dallas’ dive, Washington’s surge and the future of Jalen Hurts

Here are the headlines from around the division from this past week

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Washington Football Team Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The NFC East has always been good for one thing: inconsistency.

The Dallas Cowboys, bolstered by the return of a healthy Dak Prescott, jumped out to a strong 6-1 start to the season. They were not only the clear NFC East favorite, but a potential Super Bowl contender.

That narrative has changed in recent weeks as the Cowboys have stumbled. Meanwhile, the Washington Football Team, which got off to a very slow start this season, is surging under Taylor Heinicke and now occupies the seventh seed in the NFC playoff race. The Eagles appeared to be going strong, but fell way short to a New York Giants team last week that might be (slightly) on the rise thanks to a strong defensive performances.

The shuffling of division standings will only increase as the season winds down. Every team in the NFC East has at least three remaining division matchups on their schedule. Washington leads the group with five division games left to play.

Dallas remains the only team with a winning record, but perhaps not for long. Will the clear favorite at the start of the season be able to finish what it started or will another team enter the postseason race?

Dallas Cowboys

Due to a COVID-19 outbreak amongst the team, head coach Mike McCarthy was not on the sideline for the Cowboys’ Thursday night matchup against the slumping Saints.

But McCarthy ended up having plenty to celebrate from his hotel room in Frisco, Texas as the Cowboys defeated the Saints, 27-17, on Thursday Night Football. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn assumed head coaching responsibilities during the game.

McCarthy was not the only coach who was unable to be at the game. Five other coaches, including offensive line coach Joe Philbin and assistant offensive line coach Jeff Blasko, along with players Terence Steele and Nashon Wright missed the game.

It was fitting that the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator led the way in a game in which Dallas’ defense was the dominating factor. The defense came up with four interceptions (three in the fourth quarter), including a pick six.

The win was an important get-right game for a Cowboys team that had lost three of its previous five contests entering Thursday night’s matchup.

Washington Football Team

Washington is beginning to establish a reputation as a second-half team.

The Football Team posted a 2-7 record through 10 weeks of the regular season (including a bye) in 2020. They finished with a 7-9 record thanks to a 5-2 season-ending push. Last year, a sub-.500 record was enough to win the NFC East.

The script is similar so far in this 2021 season - the second under head coach Ron Rivera.

Through the first nine weeks of the season, Washington posted a 2-6 record. Following a bye in Week 9, the Football Team has won three straight games, upsetting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and defeating Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers before beating Russell Wilson and the Seahawks in Week 12.

Last week’s 17-15 win over the Seahawks on Monday night moved Washington into seventh place in the NFC’s playoff standings. With a 5-6 record, Washington is just two games behind the Cowboys in the NFC East after being four games back before the winning streak began.

Washington’s performance this season mirrors its play of last season in other ways beyond second-half surging. Alex Smith got the start under center when Dwayne Haskins Jr. and Kyle Allen could not play for various reasons. This season, presumed starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick went down with an injury in the first game of the season, paving the way for Taylor Heinicke.

But the injuries do not end there for Washington. The team’s starting defensive ends, Montez Sweat (jaw) and Chase Young (ACL) have both missed games. Offseason-acquisition Curtis Samuel (groin) has played just three games and tight end Logan Thomas missed five games with a hamstring issue.

Despite these setbacks, this Washington team may be even better than the one that surprised many just one season ago. Of the Football Team’s six losses, five have come against teams with a winning record. Last season, six of Washington’s losses were to teams that finished with losing records.

It remains to be seen how the rest of Washington’s season will play out but defensive tackle Jonathan Allen has a message that he delivered to media members earlier this week.

“We haven’t arrived yet.”

Philadelphia Eagles

A surging Eagles team seemed to slow down this past week against the Giants at MetLife Stadium. After winning two straight games and three of their last four, Philly looked like a different team in its 13-7 loss to the Giants in Week 12.

Before the Eagles even took the field this season, Philly’s priority was to examine Jalen Hurts and determine whether he could be the team’s quarterback of the future. So when Hurts threw three interceptions in one game against a not-great Giants team, it’s difficult not to consider the performance within Hurts’ overall canon as an NFL passer.

While all players have bad games, Sunday’s was a low point. The sophomore QB finished 14-of-31 for 129 yards and three interceptions. It was his first three-interception game, his fewest yards per attempt this season at 4.2 and his lowest passer rating at 17.5.

In short, Hurts’ performance on Sunday was his worst since becoming the Eagles’ quarterback.

As Giants fans well know, if Eagles wide receiver Jalen Reagor caught Hurts’ pass in the end zone in the final seconds, the narrative coming out of Sunday would have been very different.

Hurts’ performance on Sunday should not fall only on his shoulders though. The Eagles’ coaching staff, led by first-year head coach Nick Sirianni, made some head-scratching calls. Philly entered the Week 12 matchup with the second-best rushing offense in the league. Yet, a different tone was established from the beginning of the game as the Eagles passed on 11 of their first 16 plays. Considering the Giants’ defense has not performed well against the run this season, the play calling was confusing.

Regardless of the coaching staff’s decisions though, Hurts was always going to have to win a game with his arm. The following question now lingers: Does Hurts’ lackluster passing performance on Sunday suggest that he can’t?