How The East Will Be Won

We're already more than a quarter of the way through the NFL season, and the division races are starting to take shape. Seven of the eight divisions have one or two clear leaders, and a few teams are already facing an uphill battle into the playoffs. 

Then there's the NFC East. Three teams — the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington Redskins — are tied for second at 2-3, while the New York Giants edge the pack at 3-2. The East was the last division to see a three-win team, and the only division in which three teams share the same record. As such, it is easily the most wide-open division race in the league.

To project which of these apparently evenly-matched teams will emerge with the crown come December, the avid football fan has to know two things: which team has played the best so far (independent of record), and perhaps more importantly, what each schedule looks like down the stretch. If we learned anything from the 2014 NFC South, it's this: someone has to win.

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Brad Penner--USA TODAY Sports

Beast of the East

With only five games under their belts, none of these teams can be accurately understood simply by looking at the points they've scored and the points they've given up (in case you were wondering, the Giants have scored the most while the Eagles have surrendered the least). That said, combining the two figures might be helpful. A team's point differential is revealing in judging overall performance over opponents, and serves as the sole contributor to Pythagorean expectations and Pythagorean wins. 

By this measure, we start to see some separation among the division rivals:

TeamPPG ForPPG AgainstDiff.NFL Rank
New York Giants26.421.8+4.610th
Philadelphia Eagles23.420.6+2.812th
Washington Redskins19.420.8-1.416th
Dallas Cowboys20.226.2-6.024th

By virtue of their 39-17 clobbering of the Saints this Sunday, Philly brought itself into the black in this category. Before that, the Giants were the only team in the division with a positive point differential. The Cowboys, meanwhile, suffered mightily at the hands of Tom Brady and the New England crew, as their stretch without Dez Bryant and Tony Romo continues to take its toll. FootballOutsiders' DVOA, which gauges a team's performance on a per-play basis compared to the league average and adjusted for opponents, tells a similar story:

TeamDVOADVOA RankVarianceVar. Rank
New York Giants15.3%8th2.1%5th
Philadelphia Eagles8.8%12th12.6%20th
Washington Redskins2.7%15th10.9%19th
Dallas Cowboys-13.8%19th8.9%16th

This table means that New York is both (1) by far the most efficient team in the division, and (2) the most consistent team on a weekly basis in repeating that efficient performance. That variance is a key point: the Eagles' DVOA is impressive at face value, but that 12.6% figure indicates serious deviations from that average performance. That victory over the Saints showed a team much better than 12th in the league in efficiency, but they were nowhere near as good against Dallas in Week 2, so their DVOA ranking is not as trustworthy as New York's. As fans of Big Blue know all too well, the Giants' consistency can seem to disappear in the fourth quarter, but the numbers don't lie: judging simply from performance against opponents so far, the Giants are in the best shape in the NFC East.

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(Credit: Eric Hartline--USA TODAY Sports)

The Road Ahead

Of course, there's a lot more to this analysis than the past five games. There are still 11 more to play, each one weighing heavily on the outcome of a race this close. 

DVOA already takes strength of schedule into account, but it's worthwhile to take a clear look at how forgiving the schedule has been for each of the East teams so far:

TeamOpp Win%RankOpp DVOARank
Dallas Cowboys65%2nd-hardest14.1%4th
Philadelphia Eagles55%11th-1.0%19th
New York Giants55%12th-5.6%23rd
Washington Redskins50%18th0.2%18th

In other words, encouraging news for the 'Boys. Their record and their efficiency ratings are less-than-inspiring, but they've had a tough season so far with games against the Patriots and Falcons. No other NFC East team has had a schedule even remotely as difficult as the Cowboys'. Assuming the weeks ahead will be nicer to Dallas, the other teams will be wishing they got a bigger lead on them in the past few games.  

But let's not just assume: we can use the same metrics to see if things will be getting better or worse for these teams down the road:

TeamOpp Win%RankOpp DVOARank
Dallas Cowboys59%3rd-hardest6.5%5th
Washington Redskins56%7th1.9%13th
Philadelphia Eagles52%11th6.7%4th
New York Giants51%13th0.6%18th

Instant impression: things aren't getting much better in Texas. Not only do the Cowboys have easily one of the most punishing remaining slates in the NFL — they, unlike their division rivals, still have to play Green Bay and Seattle — they won't have WR Dez Bryant at least until Week 7 against the Giants or QB Tony Romo at least un til Week 11 against the Dolphins. Dallas has been able to keep its head above water for the time being, but if they play like they did against New Orleans or New England (or the Giants in Week 1, frankly), they'll lose their shot at the division faster than you can say "America's Team."

Dallas' one saving grace is that no team in the division has a particularly easy schedule ahead of them, so it might be hard for their opponents to get a great deal of separation. That beings said, the Giants definitely have the most forgiving future, which means more good news for the team with the most wins banked so far. 

The Eagles are a more interesting case: their opponents' cumulative record is solid, but their combined DVOA is much better than that. This is largely due to the two unique opponents they have on their schedule — Detroit and Arizona — both of whom have higher DVOAs than their records would suggest.  

Both remaining strength of schedule and previous performance statistics (and current record) agree that New York is squarely in pole position to win the division. This is great news for the Giants faithful, especially with the impending return of Victor Cruz as a potentially legitimate receiving threat across from Odell Beckham Jr. Unfortunately, the Giants' two losses (Week 1 to Dallas and Week 2 to Atlanta, both games in which they had the lead for most of the fourth quarter) have shown the football-watching public that you can never count their opponents out of the game.

So it seems, after all the analysis and discussion, we find ourselves no wiser than before. Surely, come the postseason, we'll be telling stories of intrigue and drama of how the East was won.

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