NFC East still NFL's weakest link

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In need of a facelift after a season that was worse than ugly, the NFC East is not impressing anyone yet. The highest-profile new face in the division is Ryan Fitzpatrick, a 38-year-old journeyman quarterback joining his ninth team in 17 years and searching for his first playoff appearance.

Washington played four quarterbacks last year, won a depressing division with a 7-9 record and is now turning to Fitzpatrick, who may or may not have some magic left.

There is no proof that any other team in the division is in better hands at quarterback. The Cowboys’ Dak Prescott is by far the most talented passer, but he’s recovering from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the preseason. The Giants are still betting big on a Daniel Jones breakthrough, and the Eagles are hoping Jalen Hurts’ growing pains are not too severe in his second year.

NFC East teams just compiled a 1-11-1 record in the preseason. Of course it’s only the preseason, and wins and losses are not a defining sign of what’s to come, but what was on display in August is not meaningless either.

“It’s hard to draw too many conclusions, except the NFC East is still more than a bit subpar,” The Gold Sheet editor Bruce Marshall said. “The division might be just as bad as last year or even worse.”

BetMGM lists Dallas (+ 135) as the division favorite, followed by Washington (2-1), the New York Giants (9-2) and Philadelphia (5-1). At this time a year ago, Washington was a 25-1 shot to win the division at Circa Sports.

The Cowboys are tagged with the highest win total at 9.5 but are fragile favorites until proven otherwise. Dallas averaged 32.6 points in Prescott’s five starts in 2020 and 21.1 points in the 11 games he missed with a broken ankle. The defense was a disaster area, and coach Mike McCarthy looked clueless. If Prescott's shoulder injury resurfaces, the team is in big trouble.

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. The offense should be capable of helping the cause with Fitz-magic surrounded by a few more weapons. It’s worth mentioning the NFC East has had no repeat winner since 2004.

“The whole division did not look good in the preseason, but I still like Washington with that defense,” Red Rock sportsbook director Chuck Esposito said. “It’s tough to get a gauge on the Cowboys with Prescott not playing. I don’t know what you’re going to get when Dak finally gets on the field.”

The Cowboys (0-4) and Giants (0-3) showed nothing in August. Washington (1-2) and the Eagles (0-2-1) showed only a little. All four teams are underdogs in Week 1.

The NFC East still is the NFL’s weakest link and worst division. At the risk of jumping to conclusions, plenty more can be taken from the preseason.

 

The 49ers and Patriots missed the playoffs last season but will make it this time.

Bet on Bill Belichick, who’s coming back with a vengeance. The Patriots went 3-0 in August and unveiled a much improved defense. New England is strong on the offensive and defensive lines, and more playmakers surround rookie quarterback Mac Jones, who made Cam Newton expendable.

Of the five quarterbacks drafted in the first round, I rank Jones the most impressive so far, followed closely by the Jets’ Zach Wilson. The Patriots have found their next Tom Brady in Jones — and that’s a statement about his ability, not a prediction that he will win multiple Super Bowls. Jones, who played at the highest level at Alabama, is ready to start and win now.

The Patriots, 7-9 last season, are + 120 to make the playoffs at the Westgate. The 49ers are -170 favorites to reach the postseason after finishing 6-10.

 

The 49ers are better with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback.

Garoppolo will start Week 1, when the 49ers are 7.5-point favorites at Detroit, and it’s a must-win game for the veteran. San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan played Trey Lance, the No. 3 overall pick from North Dakota State, extensively in the preseason and is obviously intrigued by the dual-threat rookie’s higher ceiling.

“I think Jimmy G. is going to start the season,” Esposito said, “but I could see a quick turnaround where the 49ers go to Lance sooner rather than later.”

If the 49ers can avoid the injuries that ruined them last season, they are good enough with Garoppolo to reach the Super Bowl. Lance is not there yet. Maybe later.

 

The Bears would be wise to go to rookie Justin Fields immediately.

Chicago’s offensive line is a problem, which means trouble for immobile veteran Andy Dalton. And trouble could come early for the Bears, who open as 7.5-point road underdogs to the Rams. Fields, a first-round pick from Ohio State, is warming up in the bullpen. Impatient fans are howling for Fields to get the call, and this time the fans appear to be right.

Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy often seem lost in the dark. I had more faith in Gilligan and the Skipper than in Nagy and Pace. Fields is not necessarily ready to win big, but what is there to gain by losing with Dalton? 

The schedule has so few soft spots that getting to eight or nine wins is unrealistic. Chicago will probably win only five to seven games and hope Fields develops along the way. Either way, bet the Bears to stay Under 7.5 wins.

 

Urban Meyer is not working a miracle in Jacksonville.

Jimmy Johnson was a great college coach. In 1989, he took a step up to the NFL and went 1-15 in his first year in Dallas.

 

The Jaguars finished 1-15 last year after upsetting the Colts in Week 1 and knocking hundreds of hopefuls, including Brent Musburger, out of the Circa Survivor contest. Jacksonville has problems on the offensive line that will make it difficult to run the ball and make life rough on rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Meyer is not an innovative offensive thinker. This is not a quick fix, and the rebuild will take more than a year. Bet the Jaguars to stay Under 6.5 wins.

The worst teams in the league, in order, appear to be the Texans, Bengals, Lions, Jaguars, Jets and Eagles.

 

“There might be some really bad teams in the league that everybody beats up on this year,” Marshall said.

 

The Buccaneers can be even better this season.

With 22 starters returning and Tom Brady more comfortable in the offense, why not bet on Tampa Bay to go Over 11.5 wins? Maybe because 44-year-old quarterbacks are supposed to be declining or retired. The sharps bet against Brady last year, and how did that turn out? The Bucs went 11-5, and their defense was dominant in a Super Bowl blowout. 

It usually pays to fade the Super Bowl losers. I’m not standing in line to fade the champs.

 

It’s always tough to find a lot of value in Super Bowl futures.

This is not college basketball. You will not discover a sleeper team at triple-digit odds that will reach the title game. But it’s always worth a look. Let’s go beyond the favorites — Chiefs (9-2) and Buccaneers (7-1) — and hunt for a long shot. How about the Broncos at 50-1? Denver was a hot ticket early in the summer when it seemed Aaron Rodgers might be the future. Instead, Teddy Bridgewater won the quarterback job.

 

“It’s hard to find value in Super Bowl futures,” Esposito said. “Denver is a team that seems like it could be a sleeper. Bridgewater had a really good preseason, I like their skill-position players on offense and the defense does look really good.”

 

My problem with the Broncos is their coach. Vic Fangio is best suited as a defensive coordinator and miscast as a head coach.

 

Bet on the best coach. The Patriots have potential at 30-1 odds. I bet New England Over 9 wins in June and feel more confident after watching the preseason. A Super Bowl appearance looks like a big reach right now, but Belichick’s team can contend if the quarterback piece fits the puzzle.

 

A Belichick-Brady showdown in the Super Bowl could be an all-time classic.

 

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