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NFC East Notebook: Readjusting expectations for the 2021-22 season

Here are the headlines from around the division this past week

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Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

As we enter Week 3 of the NFL season, it’s time for a reality check.

It’s too soon in the season to know which predictions from the offseason were spot on or dead wrong. But it is perhaps not too soon to know which predictions were overreactions.

The Washington Football Team was expected by many to win the NFC East this season. After being ranked second in the league in yards per game and fourth in points allowed, the defense was poised for a strong return. The four first-round draft picks that anchored the defensive line last season - Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Montez Sweat and Chase Young - were all returning. The offensive side of the ball was expected to be better with veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick calling the plays under center.

Then Fitzpatrick went down with a hip injury in Week 1. It was an unexpected blow for a team that only signed the journeyman to a one-year deal with the hopes that he would help the team win now.

But perhaps the more surprising development this season than Fitzpatrick’s injury and Taylor Heinicke’s rapid ascent into the spotlight, is the lackluster performance by the defense which has allowed 49 points and 815 yards through two games.

The defense enters Week 3 ranked No. 25 in yards, No. 17 in points allowed and No. 30 on third-down conversions. Last season, the unit ranked No. 2, No. 4 and No. 6, respectively, in those categories.

The defense has no shortage of challenges ahead. Washington plays the Buffalo Bills this Sunday and their schedule also features matchups against the following signal-callers: Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. Washington is the only team this season that will face all four teams that played in the conference championship games in January.

On paper, Washington’s defense has not changed but the on-field results are different through two games this season. With the success of the offense largely in question, the Football Team has quickly gone from being everyone’s top choice to win the division (mine included) to potentially...overrated.

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

Philadelphia Eagles

If Washington is looking worse than expected through two weeks, the Eagles are looking...better.

The Eagles have played the full spectrum of teams in the first two weeks of the season, beginning with the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1 and the San Francisco 49ers in Week 2. They defeated the Falcons handily, 32-6, in a convincing, strong opener for new head coach Nick Sirianni.

The Eagles fell to the 49ers, 17-11, in Week 2. But they did not get outplayed as much as they failed to capitalize on scoring opportunities. With better execution, Philly could have had 17 first-half points alone. Also, injuries to defensive end Brandon Graham and guard Brandon Brooks did not help.

Graham suffered a season-ending Achilles injury and Brooks is on IR with a strained pectoral muscle. Because he is on IR though, Brooks will be ineligible for at least the next three games (at Cowboys, vs. Chiefs, at Panthers).

It looks like second-round pick Landon Dickerson will replace Brooks. But the rookie clearly still has room for improvement as he allowed five pressures in just 20 pass blocking snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

Philly will face an important test this week when they play the Cowboys in Dallas on Monday Night Football.

Dallas Cowboys

Meanwhile in Dallas, the performance through two weeks has been what we expected. Entering this season, it was never a question of ‘Are the Cowboys good?’ because objectively, we knew that they had the potential to be. Instead, it was a question of ‘Will the Cowboys execute and live up to expectations?’ Through two weeks, the answer is yes.

In the Cowboys’ first game of the season against the Bucs, they relied on their passing game. Prescott completed 41 passes in 58 attempts for 403 yards. By comparison in Week 2, the Cowboys relied on the run game. Prescott threw just 27 passes for 237 yards. Running back Tony Pollard has shown through two games that he has is perhaps more elusive and just as good as Ezekiel Elliott. In Week 2, the third-year running back had 13 carries for 109 yards.

This difference in game plan between Week 1 and 2 illustrates the layered, dynamic quality of the Cowboys’ offense. There are five offensive players who can make an explosive impact in Elliott, Pollard and wide receivers CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup (when all are healthy).

This ability to be successful in the run game and pass game could be the reason that Dallas has long-term success this season.

Washington Football Team

As the Football Team prepares to play the Bills this Sunday, there are some notable behind-the-scenes connections that are important to consider.

It was not long ago that the Bills themselves were a rebuilding team. In Josh Allen’s first season in Buffalo, the team finished with a mediocre 6-10 record. According to The Athletic’s Rhiannon Walker, Rivera reached out to Bills coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane about advice for Washington’s rebuild.

Beane and McDermott started in Carolina and transformed the Panthers from a 2-14 team in 2010 to the first team in NFC South history to win a third consecutive division title in 2015. The Panthers finished 15-1 and reached the Super Bowl (with Rivera as the head coach) that season.

The two left for Buffalo before the 2017 season and immediately ended the Bills’ 17-year playoff drought with a 9-7 record. Since then, Buffalo has recorded two seasons with 10 wins or more.

Rivera is trying to follow in the footsteps of Beane and McDermott. This offseason, he hired Marty Hurney as the executive vice president of player personnel and added Martin Mayhew as the general manager.

In these ways, Washington is playing a team Sunday that they hope to be themselves one day.