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NFC East Notebook: How and why strength of schedule will be important in the division next season

Here are the headlines from around the league from this week

NFL: Washington Football Team at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

As the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Football Team prepare for the 2021 season, the overwhelming question is: Will they continue to be known as the ‘NFC Least’ or will they be the ‘NFC East’ again?

Last season, the four teams finished with a 23-40 combined record. Washington won the division with just seven wins. Every other division winner in the league recorded at least 11 victories.

As we look ahead to next season, each team’s strength of schedule in 2021 is of the utmost importance. Based on combined winning percentages from the 2020 season, Washington has the 10th-easiest strength of schedule in the league with a record of 123-131-2 (.484). The Giants are tied for the fifth-easiest schedule (.464). The Cowboys have the third easiest schedule (.453) and the Eagles have the easiest schedule of any team in the league at 115-141 (.449).

The basic rules of NFL scheduling are popularly known. Each team plays 16 games, including six total against division counterparts. The other rules that define each team’s schedule are more specific. 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.

This format is subject to change as reports have circulated about the NFL expanding its regular season from 16 to 17 games in 2021.

The teams in the NFC East recorded a combined 11 wins outside of their division last season. This means that the majority of wins came against division opponents, which makes sense considering the division was mediocre as a whole and bad teams have a better chance of beating other bad teams.

But the difference-making wins came against teams outside of the division. The Football Team upset the then-undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers. The Giants defeated the Seattle Seahawks. Philly, led by Jalen Hurts, upset the New Orleans Saints. Dallas did not have any major upsets, but managed to put together four wins outside of the division - the most of any team in the NFC East.

Particularly in a division like the NFC East where wins have been hard to come by, victories outside of the division matter. And so a team like Washington, who is slated to play the Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints among others, has a difficult road ahead, especially if the three other teams in the NFC East can win outside of the division.

Now, let’s check out the headlines from around the division from this past week.

Dallas Cowboys

The NFL’s franchise tag window opened on Tuesday, meaning the time frame in which the Cowboys can tag Dak Prescott has officially begun. Naturally, there are many conflicting reports about how the negotiations are going.

On Tuesday, news broke on the Star Telegram that the Cowboys front office was in the midst of making a deal with Prescott’s agent. The team apparently left those negotiations feeling optimistic. There appears to be no concern over Prescott’s ankle injury that ended his season in Week 5 last year.

Meanwhile, Bleacher Report published a story saying that no progress has been made between the Cowboys and Prescott in terms of agreeing to a long-term deal. Then ESPN’s Jeff Darlington reported that the Cowboys will “probably” use the franchise tag on Prescott for the second season in a row.

“Very important to point out here, though, speaking with people on both sides of this thing, it does not sound as if any progress has been made in a long-term extension for Dak Prescott,” Darlington said.

Prescott would receive $37.7 million if he were tagged again. A second tag is significant because it would mean that 2021 would likely be Prescott’s final season in Dallas. This is because Prescott’s value would skyrocket to $54.4 million in 2022, making him too expensive to keep around.

Washington Football Team

Meanwhile in Washington, Alex Smith gave his most revealing and transparent interview yet to GQ.

In the interview, Smith reveals that his coming back was a “wrench in the team’s plan.” He goes on to say that “They didn’t see it, didn’t want me there, didn’t want me to be a part of it...”

Of course, many were skeptical that Smith would be able to return to the playing field after the 17 surgeries he endured to his right leg. But these quotes are significant because they reveal not that the Football Team’s staff was uncertain Smith could play again, but they did not want him to play again.

Smith entered last season with 13 years of NFL experience. Even if had stayed as a third-string backup, he would have had a lot to offer a very young quarterback room in Washington.

If anything, the circumstances Smith revealed in the interview make his comeback all the more impressive. He was tasked with proving everyone, even those on his own team, wrong and still managed to pull it off.

Philadelphia Eagles

Meanwhile the Eagles are still in the process of determining who their next franchise quarterback will be now that Carson Wentz has been traded to the Indianapolis Colts. Our colleagues at Bleeding Green Nation made an important point as Philly continues their QB search.

Wentz revealed himself as an entitled quarterback, but the Eagles organization also enabled him. Up until this point in his career, Wentz only knows Philadelphia. He was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft and was named to the Pro Bowl in 2017 after a stellar sophomore campaign. Life was good for Wentz - until it wasn’t anymore. He may be gone now but the Eagles can’t repeat the same mistakes with their next signal caller. Enabling a quarterback might have been an effective strategy in the short term but it is not a long-term solution.

Beyond off-the-field problems, the Eagles did not surround Wentz with a lot of talent this past season. They drafted J.J. Arcega-Whiteside over D.K. Metcalf and Jalen Reagor over Justin Jefferson, neither of which proved to be good decisions. Alshon Jeffrey is on his way out and DeSean Jackson was officially released last week.

The Eagles need to be smarter in the NFL Draft this time around and do some clever reshuffling this offseason to fix their cap space issue. Philly has eight picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, including the No. 6 overall pick. They have to use those picks to solve their quarterback question if they elect not to sign one in free agency and then they need to find more weapons for that new quarterback if they are going to get back on the winning track again.