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The NFC East Is Historically Bad. How Much Worse Can It Get?

The most tragic injury of the NFL season — so far — had to be the one Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott suffered Sunday against the New York Giants. Prescott, who leads the league in passing yards, fractured and dislocated his right ankle scrambling past cornerback Logan Ryan and is expected to miss the rest of the season, according to Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy. Although the Cowboys won the game, the loss of Prescott is a major setback for Dallas’s chances to make something out of their 2020 season.

But the Cowboys do have one important thing going for them: They play in the NFC East. Dallas still has a 35 percent chance of making the playoffs, even after losing its franchise QB, because the rest of the division is maybe the worst in modern history. This is no hyperbole: Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, only one division — the 1984 AFC Central — had a worse record (4-16-0) through the first five games of each team’s season than the 2020 NFC East’s current 4-15-1 mark, and no division in history has had a lower average Elo rating through five games:

More like NFC Least, amirite? (I’ll show myself out.)

Lowest average Elo rating for the teams in an NFL division through five games, 1970-2020

Record
Season Division No. of Tms Wins Losses Ties W% Avg. Elo Rating
2020 NFC East 4 4 15 1 .225 1409.4
2015 AFC South 4 6 14 0 .300 1409.9
2005 NFC West 4 7 13 0 .350 1416.5
1984 AFC Central 4 4 16 0 .200 1419.3
2011 NFC West 4 7 13 0 .350 1422.5
2010 NFC West 4 8 12 0 .400 1425.3
2008 NFC West 4 7 13 0 .350 1426.8
2014 AFC South 4 7 13 0 .350 1427.9
1976 NFC West 5 10 14 1 .420 1430.3
2016 AFC South 4 9 11 0 .450 1430.5
1970 AFC Central 4 8 12 0 .400 1432.7
1971 AFC Central 4 7 12 1 .375 1433.0
2002 AFC South 4 9 11 0 .450 1435.8
1977 NFC Central 5 10 15 0 .400 1437.9
1999 AFC Central 6 13 17 0 .433 1439.5
1976 AFC West 5 11 14 0 .440 1439.5
1995 AFC Central 5 11 14 0 .440 1439.9
2009 NFC West 4 8 12 0 .400 1441.0
2009 AFC West 4 8 12 0 .400 1441.5
1998 NFC East 5 7 18 0 .280 1444.7

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

And that low Elo rating is understating the depths of the NFC East’s current plight, since it doesn’t reflect the drop-off between Prescott and Cowboys backup Andy Dalton looking ahead to the rest of the season. Dallas hadn’t played well even with Prescott putting up huge numbers, ranking 25th in schedule-adjusted expected points added (EPA) per game due in large part to the league’s third-worst defense. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Giants and the Washington Football Team all rank among the NFL’s bottom five clubs in adjusted EPA per game, ahead of only the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets. Based on what we’ve seen so far, it is fair to say this division exclusively contains not just mediocre teams, but outright bad ones.

Someone has to win it, though. Right now, we give the Eagles the edge after adjusting for Prescott’s injury, setting Philadelphia’s odds of winning at 46 percent; Dallas sits at 34 percent, followed by Washington at 15 percent and New York at 5 percent. But Philly is on track to go 6-9-1 this season, according to our model, which would be the worst record for any division winner since 1970.1 (The 2010 Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West with a 7-9 record; no word on whether the Eagles’ Miles Sanders is capable of a run like this, though.)

And that’s just scratching the surface of how bad things could potentially get. For our NFL prediction model, we generate 50,000 simulations of the remaining schedule, which create all manner of possibilities for how the rest of the season might go. I dug into them to find the worst division-winning scenario for each NFC East team — no matter how mind-boggling.

Doomsday scenario No. 1: Dallas wins at 5-11

Average outcomes in the 98 (out of 50,000) simulations in which the Dallas Cowboys win the NFC East with a 5-11 record

Simulated Seasons
Team Current Wins* remaining total
Dallas Cowboys 2.0 3.0 5.0
Philadelphia Eagles 1.5 2.8 4.3
Washington Football Team 1.0 3.1 4.1
New York Giants 0.0 3.9 3.9

*Ties are counted as half-wins.

According to our simulations, the Cowboys could win the division with a 5-11 record. In fact, it happened in 98 of their 16,833 total division-winning scenarios, making that the most likely of all these doomsday scenarios. (Don’t worry, that still means it has just a 0.58 percent chance of happening even if the Cowboys win the division.) It would essentially require the Eagles to do the worst of any division rival over the rest of the schedule — winning 2.8 of their remaining 11 games, on average — and for the currently winless Giants to do the best, with the Cowboys going 3-8 down the stretch. But each NFC East team does face non-division foes in six of their remaining 11 games, which gives them plenty of chances to lose outside the division while cannibalizing wins among themselves inside of it.

Doomsday scenario No. 2: Philly wins at 4-11-1

Average outcomes in the 10 (out of 50,000) simulations in which the Philadelphia Eagles win the NFC East with a 4-11-1 record

Simulated Seasons
Team Current Wins* remaining total
Philadelphia Eagles 1.5 3.0 4.5
Dallas Cowboys 2.0 1.8 3.8
Washington Football Team 1.0 2.8 3.8
New York Giants 0.0 3.7 3.7

*Ties are counted as half-wins.

Because of their tie in Week 3 against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Eagles could do the Cowboys one better — winning the division with a lowly 4-11-1 record. As in Dallas’s scenario, they would need to go 3-8 down the stretch; they would also need the Giants to go on a “tear” and finish around 4-7 in their remaining games, while the Cowboys would need to win about two of their last 11. The odds of this happening are lower simply because the Eagles with Carson Wentz are rated with an Elo of 1480, while the Cowboys with Dalton have an effective Elo of 1391 — making it less likely that Philadelphia would be quite so bad over the rest of the season (even if the Cowboys do play the league’s second-easiest remaining schedule in terms of opponents’ Elo ratings).

Doomsday scenario No. 3: New York wins at 4-12

Average outcomes in the 1 (out of 50,000) simulations in which the New York Giants win the NFC East with a 4-12 record

Simulated Seasons
Team Current Wins* remaining total
New York Giants 0.0 4.0 4.0
Washington Football Team 1.0 3.0 4.0
Philadelphia Eagles 1.5 2.0 3.5
Dallas Cowboys 2.0 1.0 3.0

*Ties are counted as half-wins.

Here’s a scenario that happened only once in 50,000 simulations: the Giants winning the division with a 4-12 record. To make it happen, the Eagles and Cowboys would need to go a combined 3-19 down the stretch, while the Giants go 4-7 and Football Team goes 3-8. The Giants and Football Team would then finish the season tied with identical 4-12 records, and they would have split the season series as well, but New York wins the division on the intra-divisional record tiebreaker with its three other wins coming against the Eagles (Weeks 7 and 10) and Cowboys (Week 17). It’s exceptionally unlikely, but as a subset of all the Giants’ division-winning simulations — only 2,608 in total, out of 50,000 — it’s actually more probable than our final doomsday scenario.

Doomsday scenario No. 4: Washington wins at 4-12

Average outcomes in the 1 (out of 50,000) simulations in which the Washington Football Team wins the NFC East with a 4-12 record

Simulated Seasons
Team Current Wins* remaining total
Washington Football Team 1.0 3.0 4.0
New York Giants 0.0 4.0 4.0
Dallas Cowboys 2.0 2.0 4.0
Philadelphia Eagles 1.5 2.0 3.5

*Ties are counted as half-wins.

Washington winning at 4-12 also happens only once in 50,000 simulations, though Football Team does have 7,506 other paths to the division title (compared with New York’s mere 2,607 division-winning simulations in which it doesn’t go 4-12). This one is pretty identical to the Giants’ 4-12 division-title bid, with Washington winning this time on a tiebreaker because one of the Giants’ wins came outside the division (gasp!) instead of against Football Team in their game this weekend.

Of course, the single most likely (slash boring) NFC East scenario is that the Eagles win it with an 8-7-1 record, which happened 6,127 times in our 50,000 simulations. That would mean the 2010 Seahawks could rest easy, and we wouldn’t see a new Worst Division Winner Ever in 2020. But where’s the fun in that? I’m rooting for the doomsday scenarios.

FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo ratings

How each team ranks through Week 5 of the 2020 season, according to our quarterback-adjusted predictions

Chance To …
Rk Team Starting QB QB Rk* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win SB
1 Chiefs Mahomes 1 1688 12-4 94% 78% 15%
2 Packers Rodgers 4 1655 12-4 95 76 14
3 Ravens Jackson 6 1649 11-5 87 42 9
4 Seahawks Wilson 3 1640 12-4 95 64 11
5 Titans Tannehill 9 1622 12-4 89 78 8
6 Steelers Roethlisberger 7 1619 12-4 85 39 7
7 Rams Goff 12 1603 10-6 79 27 6
8 Saints Brees 2 1591 10-6 71 49 4
9 Bills Allen 10 1583 10-6 75 59 4
10 Buccaneers Brady 15 1570 9-7 62 35 4
11 Browns Mayfield 24 1563 11-5 73 19 3
12 Bears Foles 22 1551 10-6 72 22 3
13 Colts Rivers 20 1541 9-7 41 19 2
14 Raiders Carr 5 1540 9-7 50 17 1
15 49ers Garoppolo✚ 30 1523 7-9 20 2 <1
16 Patriots Newton✚ 17 1516 9-7 56 35 3
17 Cardinals Murray 8 1509 8-8 36 6 1
18 Dolphins Fitzpatrick 11 1502 7-9 21 7 <1
19 Vikings Cousins 25 1494 7-9 18 2 <1
20 Panthers Bridgewater 14 1484 8-8 37 15 <1
21 Eagles Wentz 23 1480 6-9-1 47 46 <1
22 Broncos Lock✚ 29 1480 6-10 12 3 <1
23 Texans Watson 13 1459 5-11 6 2 <1
24 Chargers Herbert 19 1450 6-10 8 1 <1
25 Lions Stafford 16 1421 6-10 10 <1 <1
26 Falcons Ryan 18 1416 4-12 2 <1 <1
27 Cowboys Dalton 26 1391 6-10 35 34 <1
28 Bengals Burrow 28 1382 5-10-1 3 <1 <1
29 Washington Allen 32 1348 5-11 16 15 <1
30 Jaguars Minshew 21 1347 4-12 <1 <1 <1
31 Giants Jones 27 1344 4-12 5 5 <1
32 Jets Flacco 31 1327 3-13 <1 <1 <1

*Ranking among Week 6 starters, according to our QB Elo ratings.

✚ Starter is currently injured and may not play.

Simulations as of Oct. 14, 2020.

Source: ESPN

Looking ahead: There are a few good matchups to watch in Week 6, including Rams-49ers, Packers-Bucs and Steelers-Browns. But the one we’ve got our eye on is Kansas City at Buffalo on Monday night. Both teams are coming off of losses — K.C. was stunned at home by the Raiders, while the Bills were shellacked at Tennessee on Monday. Still, these are two of the nine best teams in the league, according to our Elo ratings, with a couple of electrifying QBs in Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. Buffalo has huge defensive problems, ranking 28th in the league in adjusted EPA per game so far this season, which is music to Mahomes’s ears after his mediocre performance against Vegas. Allen might find K.C.’s defense (No. 6 in EPA) a tougher puzzle to solve, though he’s been passing the ball very well and the game is at home. We give Kansas City a 60 percent chance here, but it would be a great opportunity for Buffalo to reassert itself as a legitimate contender after being embarrassed by the Titans. Elo’s spread: Kansas City -2½

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. To be fair, the record Philly would have conditional on winning the division is going to be better than that, since that 6-9-1 mark includes simulations in which itdidn’t win the division.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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