2021 NFL Preview: Over/unders for every NFC East team

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Here is the 2021 Pro Football Betting Guide preview for the NFC East.

THE FAVORITE: WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM

By definition, Dallas is the division favorite (+ 130 at DraftKings) and Washington (+ 230) is the second choice. But the Cowboys too often are talented underachievers, and they face two big problems at important spots. The same problems tripped up the Cowboys last year -- quarterback Dak Prescott has injury problems and coach Mike McCarthy finds ways to lose by making costly game-management mistakes. Remember the Thanksgiving Day massacre? Washington’s 41-16 win was the low point of McCarthy’s first season in Dallas. He called for a fourth-and-10 fake punt from the Cowboys’ 24-yard line in the fourth quarter, and it failed spectacularly. McCarthy enters this season as the only coach in the division on a hot seat. Dallas’ dismal 6-10 finish had a lot to do with Prescott’s broken ankle. The Cowboys averaged 32.6 points in Prescott’s five starts and 21.1 points in the 11 games he missed. 

A disastrous Dallas defense was another huge problem. On the flip side, Washington ranked No. 4 in the NFL in scoring defense at 20.6 points per game and again will be led by a dominant front four. If Prescott can get past a shoulder injury that sidelined him in the preseason, the Cowboys will feature the division’s best quarterback and most explosive offense. If Prescott’s injury problems linger, the Cowboys could be a lost cause. 

The Eagles face much uncertainty with second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts, and the Giants are hoping quarterback Daniel Jones’ third season will finally be a charm. Washington played four quarterbacks last year and somehow won the division with a 7-9 record. The new quarterback is an old one. Ryan Fitzpatrick, 38, is joining his ninth team in 17 years and seeking his first playoff appearance. Fitzmagic will try to pull a rabbit out of the hat and help Washington end another trend: The NFC East has not had a repeat winner since 2004, a 16-year streak that is the longest in any division in league history. Mostly due to its defense, Washington appears to be the most reliable bet. But the division probably is up for grabs, much like last year, when Washington was the long-shot winner at 25-1 odds.

LIVE DOG: NEW YORK GIANTS

Running back Saquon Barkley’s season-ending knee injury in the second game threatened to sink the Giants in coach Joe Judge’s first year. After starting 0-5, the Giants rallied behind Judge to finish 6-10 and stay in the playoff hunt until the end. The Giants had the league’s second-worst scoring offense at 17.5 PPG as quarterback Daniel Jones regressed. General manager Dave Gettleman is standing by his man and spent the offseason adding weapons around Jones. Judge, a Bill Belichick disciple, could prove to be the top coach in this division. The defense looks improved, and Barkley is back. This team has the potential to cash as the NFC East’s third choice at 9-2 odds.

PROP PLAY: EZEKIEL ELLIOTT OVER 1,100.5 RUSHING YARDS

The Cowboys were a bust in almost every way possible last year, when Elliott was about as bad as he can get. Prescott’s absence and an injury-riddled offensive line turned the two-time league rushing champ into a pedestrian back. Elliott rushed for career lows of 979 yards and six touchdowns while coughing up a career-high five lost fumbles. Elliott claims he’s in much better shape and is determined to redeem himself. He has been durable, playing in at least 15 games in four of his five seasons. Elliott led the NFL in rushing yards in 2016 with 1,631 and in 2018 with 1,434. If the offensive line returns to form, this is a buy-low opportunity on Elliott, who has a great shot to top the DraftKings prop total of 1,100 yards in a 17-game season.

BIG GAMES ON THE BOARD

Kansas City at Philadelphia (Oct. 3)

Former Eagles coach Andy Reid returns to Philadelphia with the two-time defending AFC champs. Patrick Mahomes vs. Jalen Hurts is an unfair quarterback fight, but, hey, Rocky Balboa was a big underdog to Ivan Drago.

Dallas at New England (Oct. 17)

The Cowboys open with road games against Tampa Bay and the Los Angeles Chargers, so an 0-2 start would be no surprise. After three consecutive home games, the Cowboys hit the road again to face the Patriots, who will have a significant edge in the head-coaching chess match.

Washington at Green Bay (Oct. 24)

Washington’s dominant defensive front will get to hunt down the Chiefs’ Mahomes in Week 6 and Aaron Rodgers the next week.

New York Giants at Tampa Bay (Nov. 22)

The Giants get the “Monday Night Football” stage twice in November, but both are road games against last season’s Super Bowl teams. The Giants go to Kansas City in Week 8, return home to face the Raiders and come out of a Week 10 bye to take on Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.

Las Vegas at Dallas (Nov. 25)

After getting embarrassed on Thanksgiving last year, the Cowboys will hope to rebound against the Raiders. It’s a turkey sandwich spot for Dallas, which plays at Kansas City on Nov. 21 and at New Orleans on Dec. 2.

Washington at New York Giants (Jan. 9)

It’s highly likely the division title will be on the line in this game or the other, with Dallas playing at Philadelphia on the final day of the regular season.

DALLAS COWBOYS

Until proven otherwise, the hiring of coach Mike McCarthy will be considered a mistake. His first year was a disaster, not solely because of a 6-10 record. An ankle injury that ended quarterback Dak Prescott’s season early is an excuse, but the Cowboys had other problems. McCarthy was a weak leader and poor game manager, and the defense was the worst in franchise history. Owner Jerry Jones has made a series of personnel blunders, which is why the team has not won a Super Bowl since the 1995 season.

Jones and McCarthy spent much of the offseason looking for ways to improve the defense, starting with the hiring of former Falcons coach Dan Quinn. The team’s first six draft picks were defensive players, with Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons selected in the first round. Quinn is switching to a 4-3 scheme that should highlight the pass-rushing talents of DeMarcus Lawrence and bring more production out of linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. The moves appear to be positive, and Dallas needs to show dramatic progress after ranking 28th in scoring defense by allowing 29.6 points per game.

Prescott’s health is the key to a turnaround. If he can stay on the field — and right shoulder issues sidelined him during the preseason — the Cowboys can score enough to stay in the playoff hunt. Without Prescott, the wheels fell off last season. Dallas scored 32.6 points in Prescott’s five starts and just 21.1 points in the other 11 games. The offensive line, wrecked by injuries a year ago, appears repaired. Running back Ezekiel Elliott was a big disappointment, mostly because of the awful line and Prescott’s absence. The wide receiver trio of Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup is about as good as it gets. The offense has explosive potential if all the pieces stay intact.

The Cowboys have been more about style than substance for several years. This year’s appearance on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” adds to the hype that Jones craves. Dallas needs injury luck, a tougher defense and a much wiser McCarthy to put itself in position to win the NFC East, and who aside from Jones can be optimistic about all three of those things happening? The schedule starts with road games against the Buccaneers and Chargers, putting the Cowboys in the underdog role right away and possibly putting McCarthy in an 0-2 hole.

If the division plays out as expected, the Cowboys, Giants and Washington will be fighting to finish above .500, and the race probably will be decided on the final day. Nine wins could be enough to come out on top. It’s difficult to bet on Dallas winning 10 games.

UNDER 9

WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM

The most reliable indicators in projecting a team’s success are coaching and defense. Ron Rivera did an incredible coaching job last year, all things considered. He fought off cancer, overcame a 1-5 start and used four quarterbacks en route to winning the division. Washington was a consensus pick to finish last yet emerged as the NFC East’s long-shot winner at 25-1 odds. The 7-9 record was not impressive, but it was enough in the league’s worst division. Rivera pulled it off with a dominant defense.

The Football Team ranked fourth in the league in scoring defense by allowing only 20.6 points per game. The defensive line is arguably the best in the NFL with former first-round picks Chase Young, Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Montez Sweat leading the way. Rivera added to the strength up front by drafting Kentucky linebacker Jamin Davis in the first round. William Jackson III was signed as a lock-down cover corner to complement Kendall Fuller on the other side. The defense should remain among the league’s elite.

Rivera has not ignored the offense either. He signed journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, 38, as the replacement for veteran Alex Smith and others. Rivera reached back to his Carolina roots to sign wide receiver Curtis Samuel, who can make plays opposite Terry McLaurin. The running back position is in good shape with Antonio Gibson, Peyton Barber and J.D. McKissic. Fitzpatrick is notoriously inconsistent, but he’s smart and finds ways to win. He’s surrounded by playmakers in an offense that will be better.

Washington drew a bad card with a first-place schedule that includes games against all four conference semifinal teams — Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Buffalo and Green Bay — but don’t write those off as losses just yet. Washington’s defensive front will pressure quarterbacks, keep games close and give Fitzpatrick a chance to work his magic. Rivera’s plan to be conservative and play tight games into the fourth quarter was a winning formula last year, when Washington went 9-6-2 ATS, including a 31-23 loss to the Buccaneers (-10) in the playoffs. Rivera will allow the offense to take more chances this year.

The Football Team hosts the Giants in Week 2 and will not face another division opponent until December. The NFC East has not had a repeat winner since 2004, but Dallas is a fragile favorite and Washington has the ability to repeat. Rivera is instilling character in what has been a dysfunctional organization at the top for too long.

OVER 8.5

NEW YORK GIANTS 

With a win total of 6.5 last season, the Giants seemed destined to stay Under. It was an obvious play, right? The Giants were projected to be underdogs in seven of their first eight games, and, true to form, they opened the season 1-7. But first-year coach Joe Judge pushed his team to play hard, and the results eventually showed. New York went on a midseason four-game winning streak and finished 6-10 in the NFL’s weakest division. It was not a disappointing record considering star running back Saquon Barkley was lost for the season to a knee injury after two games. Barkley’s injury was devastating, and his return should be a big boost.

Questions will linger about quarterback Daniel Jones until he provides a resounding answer. Jones threw 24 touchdown passes as a rookie in 2019, but he also totaled 12 interceptions and 11 lost fumbles. He slumped as a sophomore, passing for 11 touchdowns with 10 interceptions while taking 45 sacks in 14 games. This could be a defining season for Jones, and Barkley’s presence should only help his cause. As a rookie, Barkley finished second to Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott with 1,307 rushing yards and accounted for 2,028 total yards, including 721 yards on 91 receptions. Barkley poses a major threat as a receiver out of the backfield, something Jones needs. 

The front office is doing everything possible to assist Jones’ development. Free-agent wideout Kenny Golladay was signed and Florida speedster Kadarius Toney was drafted in the first round. With the return of Barkley plus the addition of Golladay, Toney and others, the Giants should make a big leap after ranking 31st in scoring offense at 17.5 points per game.

While the jury remains out on Judge, there are reasons to believe in the Bill Belichick disciple. It’s safe to say he’s an upgrade from failed former New York coaches Pat Shurmur and Ben McAdoo. If things go wrong, the fall guy could be offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. The former Dallas coach has not displayed a creative play-calling mind.

The defense still has something to prove. In 2019, the Giants ranked 30th in scoring defense while allowing an average of 28.2 points. In Judge’s first year, the scoring defense improved to ninth at 22.3 ppg. On paper, New York is not a legit top-10 defense. The best Giants teams of the past featured elite pass-rushing ends, and this team is lacking in that area.

The softest part of the Giants’ schedule is the first three weeks, when they host Denver and Atlanta with a sandwich game at Washington. Nothing else about the schedule is easy, unless the Eagles are as bad as expected and the Cowboys again turn into underachievers. If Jones flips the switch and Barkley stays healthy, the Giants have the potential to overachieve. It’s not a bold prediction to say this team could go either way and stay bad or improve dramatically. As with most teams in the NFC East, it’s wise to be cautiously optimistic.

UNDER 7

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Winning a Super Bowl does not guarantee a lifetime contract. In February 2018, Philadelphia upset New England to reach the NFL mountaintop. Three years later, coach Doug Pederson and quarterbacks Nick Foles and Carson Wentz are history. The Eagles are starting over with a new coach, 40-year-old Nick Sirianni, and a second-year quarterback, Jalen Hurts — and expectations are low. The NFC East is probably the league’s weakest division for the second year in a row, and Philadelphia is the consensus pick to finish at the bottom.

Wentz was dumped off in Indianapolis, where a fresh start will likely do him some good. But is his departure the best thing for the Eagles? Consider this: From 2017 to 2019, Wentz totaled 81 touchdown passes with 21 interceptions, numbers that put him in an elite class. Sure, he regressed last season, but every area of the offense was crippled by injuries, and Wentz had little support. The offensive line had 14 different starting combinations. The line appears to be in much better shape this season, but is Hurts, who completed just 52% of his passes as a rookie, the right man for the job? 

Philadelphia will need running back Miles Sanders and receivers DeVonta Smith and Jalen Reagor to develop into big-time playmakers if Hurts is to succeed.

Bettors have few reasons to believe the Philadelphia defense will be better than average, especially if the Dallas, New York and Washington offenses are as good on the field as they appear on paper. Hurts is the least experienced quarterback in the division, and the Eagles are in trouble unless he’s better than the experts think.

It’s actually possible Philadelphia will not be favored in a game until December. While that does not mean the Eagles will lose all those games, how many sensible people would bet on this team to go Over 6.5 wins? Answer: None. The best argument for the Eagles is they play in a bad division. While that’s true, they are also a big part of the problem in the NFC East.

A positive thinker would argue the offensive line is healthy again, the young receivers have potential and Hurts has enough mobility to develop into a pleasant surprise. Good luck with that argument. This is a rebuild, and Sirianni will need a year or two to make this team seriously competitive. After finishing 4-11-1 last season, Philadelphia looks like a five-win team or worse.

UNDER 6.5

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