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
|Season||Division||No. of Tms||Wins||Losses||Ties||W%||Avg. Elo Rating|
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
|Washington Football Team||1.0||3.1||4.1|
|New York Giants||0.0||3.9||3.9|
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
|Washington Football Team||1.0||2.8||3.8|
|New York Giants||0.0||3.7||3.7|
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
|New York Giants||0.0||4.0||4.0|
|Washington Football Team||1.0||3.0||4.0|
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
|Washington Football Team||1.0||3.0||4.0|
|New York Giants||0.0||4.0||4.0|
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|
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.