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NFC East preview: Romo's injury leaves division yet again preparing for parity

Tony Romo's broken back looks to have thrown the East into chaos—which is beginning to become the norm. Will Washington emerge as the division's first repeat champ in over a decade?

In 2004, the Eagles claimed their fourth straight NFC East title. Since that stretch of dominance, no team has repeated as division champion. The last 11 years have essentially been a Choose Your Own Adventure of division winners: Giants, Eagles, Cowboys, Giants, Cowboys, Eagles, Giants, Redskins, Eagles, Cowboys, Redskins.

The lack of any consistent power makes the East fun to watch, but maddening to try to predict. Last year, many expected the Cowboys to build on their 12–4 2014 season, but instead, they lost Tony Romo to injury and went 4–12, making way for the surprising Redskins to seize the division from yet another below-average Giants team and the underachieving Eagles squad that cost Chip Kelly his job.

Two weeks out from the season opener, most people were expecting the Cowboys to again emerge as the leaders of the pack. With Romo finally back, and with rookie hotshot running back Ezekiel Elliott and the best offensive line in the league, the Dallas offense would be a force to be reckoned with, enough to win a relatively weak division even with a litany of suspensions and lingering holes on the defensive side of the ball.

And then, three plays into the Cowboys’ third preseason game, Romo went down. Again.

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A broken bone in his back has put the perennially injured quarterback in a familiar state of limbo, as he’s speculated to be out for at least 6–10 weeks. Even if the Cowboys can string together some wins to keep themselves in the playoff race before his return, how long will his “return” actually last? It used to be hard to believe Romo could stay healthy for a prolonged period of time. Now, it’s almost impossible to believe that he can stay healthy, period.

As the season approaches, the main man in Dallas is not 36-year-old Romo, but 23-year-old Dak Prescott, the Cowboys’ fourth-round pick who has been the breakout star of the preseason. In his three games so far, he’s 38 for 50 for 454 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 9.1 yards per pass attempt. That’s all very exciting, except for the fact that, well, it’s the preseason. It certainly provides the Cowboys with some optimism, but the rookie QB is not a sure thing, and without Romo, neither is this team’s success in 2016.

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As for the rest of the division? Let’s start with the reigning champs. Yes, seeing veteran back Alfred Morris end up in Dallas this off-season wasn’t ideal for the Redskins, whose remaining run game is particularly uninspiring (Matt Jones and Chris Thompson should be the two main starters, though Jones injured his shoulder in the second preseason game), but Washington didn’t lose anybody irreplaceable this spring. Josh Norman comes to town with a chance to further improve an already above-average pass defense, but not much was done to address the problems with the run defense. Rookie WR Josh Doctson is yet another weapon that can help support the evolution of Kirk Cousins, but of course, the big question is whether or not said evolution continues. If Cousins hits a plateau, his team doesn’t have a run game or a strong enough defense to fall back on.

Meanwhile, the Giants have a new leader in Ben McAdoo, but as a longtime assistant of Tom Coughlin, that’s more of a “meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” situation, rather than any dramatic changing of the guard. Eli Manning is always a safe bet to throw for 3,800 yards (at the absolute low end), and I don’t need to tell you that Odell Beckham Jr. can make magic happen. But both of those guys were on the same Giants team last year that went 6­–10…and on the one in ’14 that also went 6–10. New York took serious steps to improve on last year’s league-worst defense, adding Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison to what will now be a fearsome defensive line, but there are still holes at linebacker and safety. Top draft picks CB Eli Apple and WR Sterling Shepard should both make an impact on their respective sides of the ball, and with the return of Victor Cruz, this team at least appears to have the makeup to break the three-year streak of finishing under .500, but it has become hard to trust that they can actually follow through on that potential.

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Over in Philly, Byron Maxwell, Kiko Alonso and DeMarco Murray were shipped out of town this March in what can only be described as a purge of all things related to Kelly. As for who the Eagles do have? A new coach, Doug Pederson, for starters, plus an unreliable quarterback in Sam Bradford, an unimpressive group of receivers outside of Jordan Matthews and a run game led by the talented but easily-injured Ryan Mathews. Matthews and tight end Zach Ertz are the only two real reliable receiving targets for Bradford, which isn’t too promising of a scenario. There is something to be excited about, though, in Jim Schwartz’s arrival as defensive coordinator. He brings with him a switch to a 4–3 front, which should help turn around a unit with a ton of talent that failed to consistently produce last year. Fletcher Cox’s new role will allow him to be even more disruptive on the line, which should scare every opponent on the schedule. Of course, amid it all, the unavoidable story here is whether No. 2 pick Carson Wentz will get a shot at starting quarterback duties early. That would provide some drama, but the much more realistic scenario is that Bradford puts together a competent but underwhelming year that leaves the Eagles on the outskirts of the playoffs again, despite promising defensive improvement.

This division has a ton of great talent without one truly great team. That makes all of these predictions pretty difficult, and not very reliable, but it also should make for quite a fun season.

Favorite: Washington Redskins

The actual answer here should be “?????” The Cowboys would have been the clear pick had Romo not gone down, but now it’s difficult to bank on them, even with an impressive Prescott and that unbelievable O-line. Which means, in a division without a great team, the title of favorite here defaults to the defending champions, who appear to have a more talented roster than they did at the start of the 2015 season. Rookies Su’a Cravens and Kendall Fuller can help Norman turn this defense into one that’s at least strong enough to bail out Cousins in some of his bad games. The catch here is the schedule: The Redskins didn’t beat one winning team all of last year, and now they have what projects as the ninth toughest schedule in the league. This one’s going to rely on Cousins. He needs to avoid any kind of major regression. If he does, with the offensive weapons of DeSean Jackson, tight end Jordan Reed and now rookie WR Josh Doctson at his disposal, it’s not hard to see a repeat of last year’s 9–7 record—which again could be enough to win this division. I’ll take the bold leap and say they’ll be the team that squashes the East’s repeat-free streak.

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Dark Horse: Philadelphia Eagles

It’s not difficult to imagine the Redskins, Giants or Cowboys taking the crown, but Philadelphia is in a rebuild and will probably only realistically be ready to return to contention in a couple of years. But if Bradford succeeds in ’16, it's not crazy to think they could get some momentum going under Pederson. The defense, which has been great in the preseason, could be the difference maker.

Division MVP: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, Giants

I’m not going to get carried away and say he’s going to reach 2,000 yards or anything, but I don’t think Beckham getting to 1,800 this year is much of a stretch, either. Simply put, he’s a transcendent player with a chance to be the consistent MVP of this division for years to come. 

Potential breakout player: Byron Jones, Safety, Cowboys

As a rookie in 2015, Jones put together an extremely impressive season, starting 11 games at four different positions. He finished the year with 47 individual tackles, eight pass deflections and zero turnovers. This year, he’s moving to safety full-time, which will give him the chance to further improve on his already excellent range and come into his own at a set position. “He gives us unbelievable versatility and as a safety he can go cover a slot, he can go cover a tight end,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said after the decision was made. “He’s got that skill. That’s what you want at that safety position.”

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Rookie to watch: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys

This one’s obvious. Running backs don’t get drafted with the No. 4 pick for no reason. Elliott is ready to light up the league, and with an offensive line as good as Dallas’s—and, for now, a quarterback as inexperienced as Prescott—all the pieces are in place for him to emerge as the Rookie of the Year front-runner. 

Coach with the most to prove: Jason Garrett, Cowboys

As first-year coaches, Pederson and McAdoo will get a fair amount of leeway, even if they turn in disastrous years. And while there’s pressure on Jay Gruden to show that last year’s division title was more than just a fluke, it’ll likely take a complete and utter trainwreck for him to be jobless by next off-season. That leaves Garrett, whose five full seasons as Cowboys coach have resulted in the following records: 8–8, 8–8, 8–8, 12–4, 4–12. That’s a whole lot of mediocrity for an owner who doesn’t have a lot of patience. Something’s gotta give. 

Must-watch divisional game: Redskins at Giants, Week 3, Sept. 25

Josh Norman returns to East Rutherford, where his spat with Beckham in last year’s Panthers-Giants thriller has turned every subsequent meeting between one of the game’s best receivers and one of the game's top corners into must-see TV. Get your popcorn ready.