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NFC East Notebook: An unexpectedly fun start to the 2021 season

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

New York Giants v Washington Football Team Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

After about a week-and-a-half of regular-season, it’s unlikely that many imagined the NFC East standings would look as follows:

Philadelphia Eagles: 1-0

Washington Football Team: 1-1

Dallas Cowboys: 0-1

New York Giants: 0-2

The Eagles’ victory is hardly noteworthy as they defeated a lackluster Atlanta Falcons team, but it was a commanding 32-6 victory. Quarterback Jalen Hurts showed strong pocket presence throughout and finished as Pro Football Focus’ second-highest rated QB from both an offensive and passing grade standpoint in Week 1. The defense was strong too as it was the only team in the NFL to not allow a play over 20 yards. Of course, Philly is going to play better teams than the Falcons as the season progresses but this was a stronger start than expected.

Meanwhile the Cowboys dropped their Week 1 opener to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in dramatic fashion last week. The Dallas offense lived up to (high) expectations though with Dak Prescott looking strong under center post-injury and the receiving corps of CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper turning in explosive plays.

The Washington Football Team lost their Week 1 opener to the Los Angeles Chargers. If the Eagles over-delivered, Washington was the opposite. The defense, backed by four first-round picks on the defensive line, did not look as efficient as expected. The same was true when the Football Team hosted the New York Giants on Thursday Night Football on a short week. The Giants had not scored 30 or more points in a game since playing the Cowboys in Week 5 of last season. Ultimately, Washington managed to come out on top as Daniel Jones lost his first game to the Football Team.

The Eagles and Cowboys still need to play their Week 2 games. While the early standings would have been difficult to predict, the games themselves are perhaps even more unexpected. Dallas engaged the defending Super Bowl champions in a showdown. Washington played the Chargers competitively in Week 1 and the Week 2 matchup against the Giants came down to the finals seconds. This division, so abysmal a season ago, might not be the most talented. But it has been fun to watch.

Dallas Cowboys

Entering the 2021 season, the biggest question mark for Dallas was on the defensive side of the ball. While they made moves this offseason and in the 2021 NFL Draft to add depth here, an injury to DeMarcus Lawrence during practice this week is a setback.

Lawrence suffered a broken foot in Wednesday’s practice that will sideline him for six-eight weeks. This is a significant loss for a defense that that did not record a sack against the Bucsin Week 1 and could also be without their second-best pass rusher in Randy Gregory when they take on the Los Angels Chargers in Week 2. Gregory does not look poised to pass COVID-19 protocols in time to play the Chargers.

Emphasis in Sunday’s game therefore falls on less experienced players in Dorance Armstrong and Tarell Basham as potential starters on defensive end with Bradlee Anae and Chauncey Golston as backups. They have combined for 10 sacks in their careers, in comparison to Lawrence’s 45.5 career sacks. Basham has just 7.5 sacks in 59 games.

This line will be tested Sunday as it tries to defend against Justin Herbert and rebound from a heartbreaking Week 1 loss on the road.

Washington Football Team

Injuries also plagued Washington in Week 1 as they lost starter Ryan Fitzpatrick for six-eight weeks due to a right hip subluxation. Playoff hero Taylor Heinicke got the start for the Football Team on Thursday Night Football against the Giants. It was not the prettiest win, but it was a victory.

Heinicke achieved success in his first start of the season - only the second of his career - but the challenges will only increase in upcoming weeks. The next eight weeks include matchups against four teams that won their divisions last season in the Buffalo Bills, New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers.

While it was never in Washington’s plan for Heinicke to see so much playing time so early, he bears similarities to the journeyman Fitzpatrick that are worth noting.

The journeys of both quarterbacks have been defined by change. Fitzpatrick has now played on nine teams in 17 seasons and Heinicke has been a part of four teams in four seasons, including the two years he spent on the Minnesota Viking’s practice squad, as well as a stint in the XFL. Fitzpatrick was drafted in the seventh round of the 2005 NFL Draft and was the last of 14 QB’s selected. Heinicke played college ball at Old Dominion, a school that only made the transition to FBS while he was there, and was not selected in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Both signal-callers are underdogs. Fitzpatrick was signed to the Football Team to bring consistency under center, and his injury was unexpected. But the veteran QB was always a placeholder and his departure was never unforeseeable. Heinicke’s consistency is in his flexibility and he will bring that trait to the huddle on game days.

Philadelphia Eagles

This season is a tryout for Jalen Hurts and the quarterback got off to a strong start after defeating the Falcons handily in Week 1. Even his jersey sales skyrocketed, as his jersey became the second-best selling jersey in the league after Week 1.

The second-year signal caller finished the Week 1 game 27 of 35 for 264 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 126.4 passer rating. On the ground, he had seven rushes for 62 yards. While the Falcons defense is not the strongest in the league, Hurts’ performance was hardly discouraging.

He was accurate throughout and managed the Eagles’ two-minute drill well before the end of the first half, utilizing his mobility to avoid pressure. His passes to tight end Dallas Goedert and wide receiver Jalen Reagor on that same drive were strong, further emphasizing his potential as an effective dual-threat QB in the league.

Hurts has a low average depth of target and high rate of yards after the catch, but his decisiveness and execution in the pocket should encourage Philly fans moving forward in the season.