It looks like a two-team race in the NFC East. The division has been dominated recently by this season’s co-favorites, Philadelphia and Dallas, who have combined to win six of the last seven titles. Washington shocked everyone as a + 3500 East winner in 2015, scoring the biggest division upset since sportsoddshistory.com started tracking such odds in 2009. That was Washington’s second stunner of the decade, raising the banner in 2012 with Robert Griffin III helping to guide a + 1000 ticket to the window in his rookie season. Last season Philadelphia rallied from a 5-7 start to cash in for anyone who took the chalk at -160 preseason odds despite a rash of major injuries. That was the second consecutive year Philadelphia was a substantial favorite to win the division, falling short as a -150 favorite in ’18 and settling for a wild card while Dallas won the East, treating its backers to a + 350 win. In ’14 Dallas also won the division with long odds of + 500.
As usual, a deeper dive as to who wins the division and at what odds on a yearly basis often provides insight into just how unpredictable the NFL is. The phrase “any given Sunday” was created for a reason and could be extended even further to “any given season.” A 16-game regular season is a small sample size, by far the tiniest of all the major sports. The shorter the season, the more luck plays a role. In baseball, over the usual 162 games, flukes don’t happen. Bad teams eventually get exposed, while elite talent prevails. Dallas, which in ’19 had a + 113 point differential that was historically good for a non-playoff team, can perhaps overcome its poor luck in close games, even if that poor luck is self-inflicted at times. Can a case be made for a dark horse in the NFC East to break out of the cellar and into the playoff picture? Let’s look at best bets for some answers.
Dallas to win NFC title (+ 750). I tipped my hand earlier by alluding to the historically lofty point differential. The talent has always been obvious, but it got even flashier with the addition of receiver CeeDee Lamb via the draft. Part of why Randy Moss was so dominant as a rookie in 1998 was Minnesota’s surrounding skill players. Hall of Famer Cris Carter and Pro Bowlers Jake Reed and Robert Smith made doubling the ultra-talented Moss impossible. Dallas has a plethora of weapons and, finally, a new voice in the locker room. Mike McCarthy has replaced Jason Garrett as coach. Hearing the same voice for nearly a decade gets stale. Change is a necessary part of the NFL cycle. Aside from Dallas’ shiny new toys is the possibility that the top spot in the NFC will be up for grabs. San Francisco and Green Bay are candidates to step back, while New Orleans has a 40-year-old quarterback and will not reap the benefits of the fervent Bayou crowd. If Dallas can seize its ability and sew up the No. 1 seed and only bye, it will be two home wins from cashing this one. It would likely be favored in an NFC title game in which you can hedge your position if you choose, with a chance to hit a middle and win both bets. Dallas, Detroit and Washington are the only NFC teams since ’96 not to play in a conference title game, but the Cowboys may threaten to leave that group in ’20.
Philadelphia to make playoffs: No + 160. This pairs perfectly with my Dallas pick. I think the Eagles have been leapfrogged as the class of the division, meaning they’d have to scrap for a wild-card spot to qualify. Before the draft they were viewed as slight favorites, and afterward, I think justifiably, they have been downgraded to slight underdogs with Dallas emerging as chalk. Drafting Jalen Hurts is possibly a useful insurance policy as a backup quarterback, but if he’s to become a factor this season, this bet is already in good shape. Carson Wentz has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, and if you’re searching for his last full healthy season, you will search all the way back to his high school days. Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson have missed multiple games each season dating to ’14, and both will be in their 30s when the season begins. The schedule is unforgiving. The Eagles play all the first-place teams as well as crossovers vs. the AFC North and NFC West. Vegas views both divisions as the best in the NFL based on preseason win totals. A tough schedule and a history of injuries make the Birds a team to fade.
Washington: Most losses + 475. Yes, I picked the Jaguars for this category too. I think this is a two-team race in the Trevor Lawrence (or Justin Fields or Trey Lance) sweepstakes. With Jacksonville + 400 and Washington + 475, I believe strongly you can split your bet in half and take each team and walk away with a profit. Washington doesn’t have the worst roster and actually has some defensive talent up front. But we all know the importance of the quarterback, and the team might be ranked 32nd in that category based on how Dwayne Haskins looked as a rookie. That type of lackluster production from the most important player can negate strengths in other areas. I believe new coach Ron Rivera will be fine with using this season to clean house and change the culture of the franchise, taking his lumps along the way. There are no easy games for Washington, which was favored in only two games when the lines opened in May. With a turmoil-ridden offseason and home-field advantage being of lesser significance with the unlikeliness of fans, it’s entirely possible Washington won’t be favored once all season.