No NFL division was worse than the NFC East in 2020. And few divisions have been worse in the league's 101-year history. Washington Football Team claimed the crown despite finishing 7-9, becoming just the third team to ever win a division with a losing record. The Cowboys, Giants and Eagles, meanwhile, combined to go 15-31-1, each earning top-15 picks in this year's draft. Everyone took their turn refusing to run away with the historically bad competition, and all four enter 2021 either starting or just settling into staff overhauls.
But what if we told you the East wasn't just bound for a rebound this fall, but could also offer one of the NFL's best four-way races?
A simple step forward is likely, largely because it'll be hard for all the NFC East teams to be as rudderless as they were in 2020. It's also been a while since the division was consistently a powerhouse; back in the mid-2000s, there were regularly multiple 10-win contenders, with the East sending at least two teams to the playoffs in eight of 10 seasons between 2000-2009. But a closer look at the East's prospects for 2021 suggests we're really underselling the division's chances this year.
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All four teams (!) are projected by William Hill Sportsbook to win more games than they did in 2020. But once you look at each of them, it's no wonder why. This might not be the NFC West, where any one of Arizona, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle could be suited for a deep playoff run. It is, however, shaping up to present one of the NFL's best showdowns this season:
2020 record: 6-10
2021 projected win total: 9.5
The Cowboys know all too well that having a good team on paper does not translate to on-field results. But on paper, the talent is there. Quarterback Dak Prescott may have been an MVP front-runner if not for a broken ankle in Week 5 of 2020, the early nail in Dallas' coffin last year. As long as he's mostly healthy, he's got the supporting cast to lead one of the league's best offenses: A motivated Ezekiel Elliott at running back, a healthier O-line, and an elite receiving trio of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb. Defensively, they've now got Dan Quinn calling the shots and, more importantly, high-upside additions at linebacker (Micah Parsons) and defensive back (Keanu Neal, Kelvin Joseph).
Prescott's health is still a big X-factor, as is the aging front protecting him, but as long as Mike McCarthy doesn't lose his franchise QB again, the Cowboys' floor should be something like a 9-8 finish. Quinn's "D" will inevitably still have lumps due to its dependence on some younger starters. But offense routinely wins in today's NFL, and they've got a really explosive one in Arlington.
New York Giants
2020 record: 6-10
2021 projected win total: 7
Unlike the Cowboys, the G-Men don't necessarily have a sure thing under center, which is kind of a big deal. But if ever Daniel Jones is going to step up and maximize his physical tools, it'll be this year. New York is still dealing with questions up front, which forced Jones to use his legs too often in 2020. General manager Dave Gettleman, however, delivered on his promise to give Danny Dimes more weapons: Between a healthy Saquon Barkley at RB and pass-catching additions Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney and Kyle Rudolph, the Giants now boast better starters and depth at key spots, with guys like Darius Slayton and Sterling Shepard still around.
That's not even accounting for Patrick Graham's defense, which was better than anticipated in 2020 and added Adoree Jackson opposite James Bradberry at corner. The trenches may still be an issue here, both on offense and "D," where Leonard Williams faces pressure to make up for a lack of edge help after rookie Azeez Ojulari. And yet the pieces are in place for a Wild-Card candidacy.
2020 record: 4-11-1
2021 projected win total: 7
After a dysfunctional 2020 that resulted in the alienation of a former star QB and the dismissal of a Super Bowl-winning coach, the Eagles have nowhere to go but up. After flirting with alternatives, they've embraced second-year man Jalen Hurts as Carson Wentz's trial-run successor. While the young QB lacked accuracy as a rookie, he offers more than enough poise and mobility to shepherd an offense with other enticing ingredients: 1.) A young and fresh offensive staff headlined by ex-Colts coordinator Nick Sirianni; 2.) A new No. 1 wideout in DeVonta Smith; 3.) A healthier O-line that still boasts several Pro Bowlers.
The defense will inevitably have hiccups under first-time coordinator Jonathan Gannon, who's particularly short on corners behind Darius Slay and rookie Zech McPhearson, but couple the foundational pieces (Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox) with new faces (Eric Wilson, Anthony Harris), and the group is at least passable. Even if Hurts is more good than great, the overturned roster isn't as barren as you might expect, so it wouldn't be crazy for the Eagles to make like their 2016 selves (when Pederson was a rookie coach) and challenge for seven to nine wins, if not a surprise playoff spot.
Washington Football Team
2020 record: 7-9
2021 projected win total: 8
Some would argue they deserve to be favored, and there's evidence for it: Despite a 2020 QB carousel that featured a wayward Dwayne Haskins, an injured Kyle Allen and an overly conservative Alex Smith, coach Ron Rivera successfully rode his top play-makers (RB Antonio Gibson, WR Terry McLaurin) and a stingy "D" headlined by rookie pass rusher Chase Young to a playoff spot. Now, with Ryan Fitzpatrick in place as a short-term but high-energy upgrade under center, as well as new gadget weapons (WRs Curtis Samuel, Dyami Brown) and defensive starters (LB Jamin Davis, CB William Jackson III), they boast a rock-solid lineup.
They still feel more like a .500-level candidate than a title contender, perhaps in part because they haven't had double-digit wins since 2012. Fitzpatrick's age and tendency for high-risk play might cement that. But their ceiling is almost definitely higher than it was a year ago. If both trenches hold up and Fitz gives Washington more jaw-dropping highlights than jaw-dropping mistakes, the Football Team could be positioned to finally hit that 10-win mark again.