NFC East preview, forecasts and predicted records
It’s been four seasons since an NFC East team won a postseason game—and that was the Eagles’ “double-doink” game in Chicago. But that streak will likely be broken this year in a wide-open NFC. This division now boasts two teams with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations and two others who profile as sneaky wild-card contenders.
The Cowboys, who won the division last year, are favorites to repeat because of their talent on both sides of the ball, even after the loss of left tackle Tyron Smith to a torn hamstring. Their turnaround last season, from 6–10 to 12–5, was due to the return of quarterback Dak Prescott, who missed 11 games in 2020, but the young defense that took off under first-year coordinator Dan Quinn was just as impactful. The former Falcons head coach, who also coordinated Seattle’s Legion of Boom defense, had Dallas playing fast and causing chaos, with an NFL-best 34 takeaways last year. The key is the pass rush, spearheaded by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Micah Parsons (13 sacks as a rookie in ’21), which created opportunities for the secondary, led by third-year cornerback Trevon Diggs (11 interceptions in ’21, the most by any NFL player in 40 seasons).
Of course, a deep playoff run will require better postseason play from Prescott. His team led the NFL in scoring with 31.2 points per game, but he dealt with a series of ailments in 2021 and struggled down the stretch, including a poor performance in the Cowboys’ 23–17 home wild-card loss to the 49ers. Prescott is now just 1–3 in playoff games, and that record will be a popular talking point come January.
The Eagles were a surprise playoff team last season, with a diverse running game built around first-year starter Jalen Hurts at quarterback. It’s unclear whether Philly’s front office views Hurts as its QB of the future or a stopgap until the next guy (the Eagles own two first-round picks, including the Saints’, in what could be a QB-rich 2023 draft). But with the acquisition of A.J. Brown, arguably one of the NFL’s five best receivers, from Tennessee, Hurts is now surrounded by talent, and this season will give a defining read on his long-range potential.
Washington has a new name (Commanders) and a new quarterback (Carson Wentz, acquired from Indianapolis) but still figures to play the same brand of football it has the past two seasons (ugly). It starts four first-round picks on the defensive line, but unfortunately the best of the bunch, DE Chase Young, is coming back from a torn ACL in November and might be out until midseason. Of course, the biggest question mark is Wentz, who was an MVP candidate in 2017 with the Eagles but has now had franchises give up on him in back-to-back years. This could be the last chance for the 29-year-old to show he can lead a team.
After another disappointing season, the Giants went upstate to find new leadership. They hired Buffalo offensive coordinator Brian Daboll as their new coach and Bills assistant general manager Joe Schoen as their new GM. This looks like a transition year for Big Blue. But any hope New York has of succeeding in 2022 rides on whether Daboll can unlock the potential of fourth-year quarterback Daniel Jones as he did with Josh Allen in Buffalo, and also whether he can make better use of talented but oft-injured running back Saquon Barkley, who has missed 18 games over the past two years.
SI’S PROJECTED STANDINGS
1. Dallas Cowboys: 11–6
Best Case: Prescott finds another gear late in the season, and CeeDee Lamb establishes himself as a superstar at wide receiver in his third year. Dallas makes a run to the Super Bowl for the first time since the Troy Aikman era.
Worst Case: The long season proves to be too much for a once-dominant-but-now-aging offensive line, which struggles without stalwart left tackle Tyron Smith. A banged-up team limps into the playoffs as a wild-card entrant after a December swoon. Prescott shrinks in January again, and Mike McCarthy is out as coach.
2. Philadelphia Eagles: 10–7
Best Case: The passing game expands behind the Hurts-to-Brown connection, but it’s the infusion of speed on defense—thanks to new edge rusher Haason Reddick and rookie linebacker Nakobe Dean—that launches the Eagles past Dallas for the division crown.
Worst Case: The Eagles get their answer on Hurts; he remains effective with his legs but inconsistent with his arm. The reinforced defense still gets diced up by quality QBs as it did last year. Philly misses the playoffs and heads into the offseason looking for a new quarterback.
3. Washington Commanders: 7–10
Best Case: The defense is the sum of its impressive parts, with the line wreaking havoc and Young back at full strength. The Commanders are at their best in the December slop, with Wentz avoiding big mistakes as the team rides a low-scoring winning streak to a wild-card berth.
Worst Case: The defense’s back seven doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain. An offensive line weakened by the losses in free agency of Brandon Scherff and Ereck Flowers leaves Wentz under fire and making the kind of bad decisions that wore out his welcome in previous stops.
4. New York Giants: 6–11
Best Case: The offense is revived as Daboll emphasizes Jones’s blend of pocket presence and athleticism; Barkley tops 1,500 yards as a rusher and receiver; and WR Kenny Golladay plays up to his four-year, $72 million contract. Big Blue plays meaningful January football.
Worst Case: A young defense doesn’t deliver in new defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s complex system. As for the offense, it’s back to the drawing board: Jones fails to take off and the Giants—picking in the top five again—look for yet another QB of the future.
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The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.