At this time last year, my colleague Walt Hickey and I mocked Washington’s chances of winning the NFC East. Oops. Defying the 4 percent division odds that our Elo ratings gave them in the preseason, the Suing Snyders won their final four regular-season games to capture one of the weakest divisions in recent memory (before promptly losing by 17 points in their first playoff game). The big question for 2016 is whether the team can capitalize again on the weakness of what Elo considers the NFC’s worst division and become the East’s first repeat winner since 2004.
By most accounts, Washington had a productive offseason, adding All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman and using the franchise tag to re-sign quarterback Kirk Cousins to a reasonable make-good deal. Now the team’s fortunes might hinge on whether Cousins can repeat a 2015 performance that was easily the best of his career. On the one hand, Cousins’s track record heading into last season was subpar at best. On the other, three of his four most similar passers last season were Drew Brees, Joe Montana and Jim Kelly. (The other was Jeff George.) If Cousins can prove that he belongs in the same paragraph as that trio, Washington could have a stranglehold on the East.
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But things are rarely so easy in this division. Elo ratings suggest that it’s the most wide open in all of football, with Washington holding by far the worst division odds (29 percent) of any division favorite in the NFL.1 At 27 percent, the Philadelphia Eagles are right behind Washington. The tumultuous reign of Chip Kelly is over — for better or for worse — and Philly regained some measure of normalcy in an offseason spent undoing many of Kelly’s personnel gaffes: GM Howie Roseman did a good job of rebuilding the franchise for the future, particularly with a recent trade that jettisoned maligned QB Sam Bradford for draft picks. But Roseman’s roster shuffling left rookie Carson Wentz as the team’s opening day starter. Without much of a safety net beneath Wentz on the depth chart, his inexperience could mean that Elo — which doesn’t directly account for personnel changes — is overrating the Eagles.
If so, the New York Giants will be there to fill the void. They, too, will be operating under a new coach (for the first time since 2003). Ben McAdoo takes over a team that last year featured good special-teams play and an efficient passing offense led by Eli Manning. The 2015 Giants’ main problem was a leaky defense — third-worst in the NFL — and the team took steps in the offseason to address that flaw, though it didn’t come cheap. Manning is getting older but is still effective, so if those roster moves end up working on D, the Giants could ride a favorable schedule to their first division crown in five years.
The Dallas Cowboys should also benefit from soft scheduling — Elo ranks their slate eighth-easiest in the NFL — but Tony Romo’s preseason injury might negate that edge. The Cowboys have been here before, pressing inadequate QBs into action with Romo on the sidelines. This time, they’re rolling with Dak Prescott, one of the lowest-drafted Week 1 rookie starters in NFL history. (The alternative is accomplished butt-fumbler Mark Sanchez.) And even if Dallas does somehow improve on last year’s dismal showing through the air, the team has holes on defense that were only partially addressed in the offseason. No. 4 overall draft pick Ezekiel Elliott may instantly run wild behind the Cowboys’ tremendous offensive line, but without Romo, the team may win even fewer than the seven games Elo projects for it.
If we’ve learned one thing from this division in recent years, however, it’s to expect the unexpected. (Washington’s rise last season was the norm in a division that’s changed hands in each of the past 11 seasons.) The NFC East probably won’t be pretty in 2016, but it could once again be the most competitive division in the NFL.