Cowboys must hold off Eagles in NFC East

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The favorite: Cowboys. A year ago, three NFC East coches went into the season on hot seats. There were no survivors. Jay Gruden was fired after Washington’s 0-5 start, the Giants parted with Pat Shurmur after a 4-12 finish and Dallas finally dumped Jason Garrett, who went 8-8 and missed the playoffs. Doug Pederson was safe after directing Philadelphia to a Super Bowl win in 2018, but the Eagles appear to be declining unless Carson Wentz proves he’s the top quarterback in the division. The Cowboys were talented underachievers under Garrett, so Mike McCarthy’s challenge is to get more out of the most talented team in the division. Sharp money has pushed Dallas’ win total from 9½ to 10 at most sportsbooks. A potentially explosive offense led by Dak Prescott is one reason, and a soft schedule is another. The Cowboys will play five games against teams projected to win fewer than seven games — Cincinnati, Washington and the Giants. The Westgate SuperBook lists the Cowboys as -140 division favorites, followed by the Eagles (+ 150), Giants (14-1) and Washington (25-1). Dallas should win it, but the same was true last year when Wentz rallied Philadelphia to four consecutive wins in December and caught the Cowboys from behind at the wire.

Live dog: Giants. New York gets this label by default. Philadelphia has been one of the NFC’s top teams in recent seasons, so the Eagles don’t qualify as underdogs, and Washington remains a mess. The Giants have a legit star in running back Saquon Barkley and a promising franchise quarterback in Daniel Jones. But that’s about all they can brag about. The offensive line still is a concern, and the defensive front lacks playmakers. New coach Joe Judge, a special-teams assistant in New England, brings a Bill Belichick-type disciplinarian approach to the job. Maybe Judge will be the next Tom Coughlin. He can’t be clumsier than the Giants’ last two coaches, Shurmur and Ben McAdoo. Barkley and Jones at least give the Giants a little hope.

Prop players. The league’s No. 1 offense last season did not belong to Kansas City, Baltimore or New Orleans. Dallas led the NFL with 431.5 yards per game — 24 yards per game more than the second-ranked Ravens — and that was with two-time league rushing champ Ezekiel Elliott enduring an off year after an extended contract holdout. QB Dak Prescott had seven 300-yard passing games and finished second in the league with 4,902 passing yards. The Cowboys still have an elite offensive line, and Prescott has three big-play receivers to target in Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and rookie CeeDee Lamb. DraftKings is offering 14-1 odds on Prescott to lead the league in touchdown passes and 8-1 odds to lead in passing yards. Elliott is posted at 8-1 to lead the NFL in rushing yards, something he accomplished in 2016 and 2018.

Big games on the board

Dallas at Seattle, Week 3: Dak Prescott has one playoff win, beating Russell Wilson and the Seahawks 24-22 in January 2019. It would be no surprise if these teams meet in the playoffs again.

Philadelphia at Pittsburgh, Week 5: Ben Roethlisberger’s return from injury is a big story, but the Steelers’ strength is their elite defense. Carson Wentz, no stranger to injury comebacks, will get tested in this state championship game.

Dallas at Philadelphia, Week 8: The division is a two-horse race. The Eagles need to protect their home field to make a statement.

San Francisco at Dallas, Week 15: The Cowboys face the Ravens, 49ers and Eagles during a potentially defining four-week span in December.

Dallas (Over 9.5 -170, PointsBet)

For an organization that often appears dysfunctional, Dallas has done a superb job of roster building and putting together arguably the most talented starting lineup in the league. QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott work behind a rock-solid offensive line, and Prescott has the type of big-play receivers Aaron Rodgers wishes he had in Green Bay. If anything happens to Prescott, Andy Dalton is a capable backup. 

 

The Cowboys are strong on the defensive front, even after losing DT Gerald McCoy to a season-ending injury, and Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith and Sean Lee form a phenomenal linebacker group if they can finally stay healthy. The coaching staff held this team back, but Jason Garrett’s stale style has been replaced by a rejuvenated Mike McCarthy, who has good coordinators to help run the show. The NFC East is the only division in the NFL in which each team has won a Super Bowl. While the Eagles and Giants have done it recently, the Cowboys’ last title came after the 1995 season. 

 

Dallas has the talent to get back to the top, so 15-1 odds to win the Super Bowl offer decent value. The schedule is certainly soft enough for the Cowboys to win at least 10 games.

Philadelphia (Under 9.5 -120, Westgate)

Some critics like to pick on QB Carson Wentz, but that hate is misplaced. He’s a leader and a winner. In 2017, Wentz was putting up MVP-worthy numbers (33 touchdown passes, seven interceptions) before going down with a knee injury and watching Nick Foles lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl upset of New England. In 2018 and ’19, Wentz totaled 48 TD passes with 14 interceptions. The problem? Wentz has had injury issues. Heath permitting, he should have another big year. 

 

Philadelphia has an elite offensive line, a stud running back in Miles Sanders, a standout tight end in Zach Ertz and more speed at wide receiver, especially if Jalen Reagor was a wise first-round pick and DeSean Jackson can stay on the field. Potential problems lurk on defense, notably a weak linebacker corps and small defensive backs, but it’s foolish to count this team out. The Eagles were 5-7 last year before Wentz ripped off a four-game winning streak in December to take the division. 

 

Philadelphia should start the season 3-0 (at Washington, home versus the Rams and Bengals) and make a run at nine wins and another playoff appearance. However, predicting 10 wins is too optimistic. 

New York Giants (Under 6.5 -140, Westgate)

Now that the Giants have moved on from QB Eli Manning, WR Odell Beckham Jr. and two of the worst coaches (Pat Shurmur and Ben McAdoo) in franchise history, what’s next? 

 

The faces of the franchise for the next several years will be RB Saquon Barkley and QB Daniel Jones, and that’s a good place to start. As a rookie, Barkley finished second to Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott with 1,307 rushing yards and accounted for 2,028 total yards, including 721 receiving. Barkley’s numbers dropped last year, but he missed three games with a bad ankle and was banged up and bottled behind a poor offensive line. Jones had 24 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions as a rookie in 2019, but he lost 11 fumbles.

 

If the line improves (first-round pick Andrew Thomas should help) and Jones finds a few playmaking receivers other than Barkley, the Giants could be intriguing offensively. Still, question marks litter the defense, which was a disaster last year (30th in scoring at 28.2 ppg). The jury is still out on new 38-year-old head coach Joe Judge. The Giants will be underdogs in seven of their first eight games, so betting on this team to win seven games is a fantasy. Take the under.

Washington (Under 5 + 110, Westgate)

If Ron Rivera can get the Washington Football Team to six wins, he deserves Coach of the Year votes. The absence of a nickname underscores what a joke this franchise has become in recent years. 

Dwayne Haskins is expected to start at quarterback, though he was a deer-in-the-headlights rookie and should be looking over his shoulder at backups Kyle Allen and Alex Smith. Adrian Peterson is 35 and still a productive running back, yet the offensive line rates as mediocre and the wide receiver group might be the least talented in the league. There’s always a bright spot, however, and the defensive front is among the toughest in the league. Rivera and new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio are switching to a 4-3 scheme and hoping No. 2 pick Chase Young develops into an elite edge rusher right away. Rivera’s plan appears to be to try to win low-scoring games with defense. As of now, Washington figures to be favored in no more than three games. 

 

After a 3-13 finish, getting to four or five wins with this sad-sack roster would be a solid accomplishment. Look Under the season win total and Under the total in several of Washington’s games.

 

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