Oct 3, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys  quarterback Dak Prescott (4) celebrates a touchdown with wide receiver Cedrick Wilson (1) against the Carolina Panthers at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Looking like contenders, Cowboys host Giants in NFC East clash

Perhaps a year later than expected, the Dallas Cowboys have the look of a true contender in the NFC.

Three straight wins have propelled them to the top of an East Division that doesn’t look a whole lot better than last year, when every team finished with a losing record. However, two of those came against apparent playoff contenders in the Los Angeles Chargers and Carolina Panthers.

Dallas (3-1) tries to make it four in a row Sunday when it hosts the New York Giants in a division clash. It owns a one-game lead on Washington and is two up on New York and Philadelphia.

It was the two games with the Giants last season that told the tale of a disappointing 6-10 campaign for Dallas. It won the first matchup at home but lost quarterback Dak Prescott for the season with an ugly fractured ankle that day, making a high-powered offense much more ordinary.

The second game went the Giants’ way in Week 17, knocking the Cowboys out for good and resulting in Washington winning the division with a win at Philadelphia. It ignited questions as to whether coach Mike McCarthy was truly the solution on the sideline.

These days, McCarthy appears to have Dallas on the right track, new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has improved a leaky unit and Prescott hasn’t missed a beat in his return. And with the re-emergence of running back Ezekiel Elliott, who carved up Carolina for 143 yards last week, the Cowboys don’t appear to have many holes.

Elliott’s numbers were modest through three games. But owner Jerry Jones was convinced that Elliott was ready to break out, citing the offseason work he’d put in that dropped 10 pounds off his frame.

“There’s no question that what you put in in spring, what you put in in training camp, that’s what you get out during the season,” Jones said. “He put it in during the offseason and it’s paying dividends for him.”

As for New York (1-3), it earned its first dividend of the season last weekend in New Orleans, where Daniel Jones threw for a career-high 402 yards and Saquon Barkley scored the winning touchdown in a 27-21 overtime decision.

Jones has played much more efficiently so far. A turnover machine at times in his first two years, Jones has tossed only one interception in 144 passes and lost just one fumble after coughing up 17 fumbles in his first 27 games.

“We haven’t won enough games — that’s no secret — the first two years and obviously this season didn’t start how we wanted it to or expected it to,” he said. “Those are storms we’ve all had to weather and we’ve got to continue to progress, continue to improve.”

The Giants certainly look like a different team offensively from the hit-or-miss unit of the last two years. Barkley collected 126 scrimmage yards in New Orleans, while free agent receiver Kenny Golladay enjoyed his best game with the team, grabbing six passes for 116 yards.

To make it two straight wins, New York might need more big plays from a defense that ranks in the league’s bottom half in sacks (tied for 30th) and interceptions (tied for 18th).

–Field Level Media

Sep 15, 2019; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins wide receiver Terry McLaurin (17) is congratulated by offensive guard Brandon Scherff (75) after scoring a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys during the second half at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Least of these: WFT, Cowboys fight for first in East

Cynics call it the NFC Least.

But Thursday’s annual Thanksgiving Day game featuring the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Football Team carries a feast of a prize: the winner will own first place in the ragtag division for at least a few days.

Yep, the winner of a game matching two 3-7 teams sits atop this heap of mediocrity. And while a 4-7 first place team might get more than its share of scorn, they’re also in line for a playoff spot with five games remaining.

So for veterans like Washington defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, this is a chance to show younger teammates what it’s like to prepare for – and maybe win – a big game.

“As weird as that is to say at 3-7, we’re still very much in it,” Kerrigan said after practice on Monday. “Hopefully, we can make it happen down the stretch here.”

Washington appears to have a sunny future for the first time in a while.

New coach Ron Rivera can boast of a solid defensive line, one that has shown it can protect a lead. Once Washington took the lead in the third quarter Sunday against Cincinnati, the line notched four sacks in a 20-9 decision.

Washington has found a running game with rookie Antonio Gibson, a wide receiver at Memphis who has a team-high 530 rushing yards. Last week, he went for 94 against Cincinnati, including his eighth touchdown of the year. Terry McLaurin is on a pace for close to 100 catches, and veteran quarterback Alex Smith scored his first win in more than two years on Sunday. In his first 24 games, McLaurin has the numbers of a No. 1 receiver no matter the offense. His 1,790 receiving yards to date are 12th most all-time through 24 games and ahead of the likes of Jerry Rice (1,757).

“If you systematically run the ball and grind the clock and control it, you can control the tempo,” Rivera said. “If you’re shutting down the run and you get pressure on the quarterback, you’re allowing the defensive backs to make plays. There are different ways to win.”

Consistency? McLaurin nails it. He has 11 games with 80-plus receiving yards despite a revolving door at quarterback in his two seasons.

Cornerback play has been a concern for Dallas, and the Cowboys’ pass rush is not exactly consistent.

Dallas erased two fourth-quarter deficits and won 31-28 at Minnesota on Sunday. Andy Dalton’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Schultz with 1:37 left in the game helped Dallas snap a four-game losing streak.

It was Dalton’s first game since Oct. 25, when Washington linebacker Jon Bostic knocked him out of a 25-3 loss in the third quarter with a late hit to the helmet as Dalton slid to end a scramble. A battle with COVID-19 kept Dalton on the sidelines as Dallas continued to cycle through third and fourth-string quarterbacks with little success.

A Cowboys offense that shriveled up and died when Dak Prescott ended his season with a frightening leg injury in Week 5 finally displayed its trademark balance with almost 400 total yards. Their four touchdowns were twice as many as they produced in the prior four games.

“Everything’s in front of us. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done up to this point,” Dalton said. “It’s all about these next seven games.”

One recurring problem Dallas must confront on a short week is a lack of healthy bodies at cornerback. Starter Anthony Brown (ribs) left Sunday’s game in the fourth quarter, and rookie starter Trevon Diggs (foot) is on injured reserve.

Coach Mike McCarthy said on Monday that Brown would give it a shot at practice on Tuesday, but isn’t sure if he’ll be ready to go. The Cowboys dug deep into their depth chart Sunday to activate Rashard Robinson for his first game of the year in Diggs’ place.

The Cowboys did not practice Tuesday after head strength and conditioning coach Markus Paul was rushed to the hospital suddenly Tuesday morning at the age of 54. Paul’s family said he was undergoing treatment Tuesday morning, denying a report from Sports Illustrated stating Paul had died.

–Field Level Media

NFC East Preseason Grades

DALLAS COWBOYS

Key Acquisitions: WR Allen Hurns, LB Leighton Vander Esch, OT Cameron Fleming, WR Tavon Austin, WR Deonte Thompson, FB Jamize Olawale, DE Kony Ealy, OT/OG Connor Williams, TE Dalton Schultz

Key Losses: TE Jason Witten, WR Dez Bryant, LB Anthony Hitchens, OG Jonathan Cooper, CB Orlando Scandrick, RB Alfred Morris, WR Brice Butler, CB Bene Benwikere, LB Kyle Wilber, DE Benson Mayowa, WR Ryan Switzer, FB Keith Smith

Things are never quiet in Dallas, and while the Cowboys didn’t make many flashy moves this spring, change came suddenly in April when two franchise icons with a combined 14 Pro Bowls left in less than a two-week span. Dez Bryant’s departure (via release) was the Cowboys’ choice, but Jason Witten’s retirement caught more than a few by surprise.

What’s left is an offense that must be driven by Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, though its stellar front five remains a constant. The O-line got reinforcements in Connor Williams — who could start at left guard — and swing tackle Cameron Fleming, before a record-setting extension for Zack Martin. Receiver and tight end remain a concern, however, with a grab bag of unproven or uninspiring options at both spots. Dallas was probably right to drop out of the Sammy Watkins sweepstakes, but where will the explosive pass plays come from?

The defense lost a few rotation pieces, but much of the same group returns for a unit that quietly ranked eighth in yards and 10th in yards per play last season. First-rounder Leighton Vander Esch should contribute early, but his arrival could be a bad sign for Jaylon Smith’s progress or Sean Lee’s longevity. There are concerns up front, too, as Demarcus Lawrence did not receive the multi-year contract he coveted and starting defensive tackles David Irving (suspension) and Maliek Collins (broken foot) could miss time.

Offseason Grade: C

FLM Take: The Cowboys took care of their O-line, but the skill positions took a hit and few upgrades were made elsewhere.

 

NEW YORK GIANTS

Key Acquisitions: RB Saquon Barkley, OT Nate Solder, LB Alec Ogletree, RB Jonathan Stewart, OG Will Hernandez, OG Patrick Omameh, LB Kareem Martin, CB William Gay, WR Cody Latimer, S Michael Thomas, P Riley Dixon, LB Lorenzo Carter, DT B.J. Hill; OLB Connor Barwin

Key Losses: DE Jason Pierre-Paul, OG Justin Pugh, C Weston Richburg, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, WR Brandon Marshall, LB Devon Kennard, LB Jonathan Casillas, CB Ross Cockrell, OG D.J. Fluker, OT Bobby Hart, RB Shane Vereen, WR Dwayne Harris, QB Geno Smith, P Brad Wing

New GM Dave Gettleman certainly doesn’t lack conviction. After concluding that Eli Manning still has a few quality years left, Gettleman went all-in on building the Giants’ offensive line and running game, sparing no expense in the process.

Nate Solder’s record-breaking contract ($15.5 million annually, most in NFL history) is tough to swallow, but if it upgrades both tackle spots — with Ereck Flowers moving to the right side — the Giants’ offense should be much better. Patrick Omameh (signed from the Jaguars) and second-rounder Will Hernandez will boost the interior, which has big shoes to will with Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg out the door. On top of it all, Gettleman bet big on Saquon Barkley while passing on a potential QB of the future. If Odell Beckham Jr. returns to 100 percent, and both sides work out a new long term contract, the pieces for an offensive turnaround are in place.

New York’s defense might need more work. Especially after it traded Jason Pierre-Paul, who had nearly a third of the team’s sacks in 2017. Acquiring Alec Ogletree filled a void in the middle, but pass-rush concerns are warranted, as third-round pick Lorenzo Carter remains very raw as a rusher. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie could be missed as well, especially with uncertainty about Eli Apple’s reliability.

Offseason Grade: C+

FLM Take: The Giants’ offense should be in for a significant rebound, and a better running game would take pressure off the defense. Still, Gettleman’s approach felt a bit antiquated, and he could rue passing on Sam Darnold.

 

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Key Acquisitions: DE Michael Bennett, WR Mike Wallace, DT Haloti Ngata, TE Dallas Goedert, TE Richard Rodgers, LB Corey Nelson, WR Markus Wheaton, WR Kamar Aiken, RB Matt Jones

Key Losses: DE Vinny Curry, CB Patrick Robinson, LB Mychal Kendricks, RB LeGarrette Blount, TE Brent Celek, TE Trey Burton, WR Torrey Smith, DT Beau Allen, S Corey Graham, P Donnie Jones; LB Paul Worrilow

Many Super Bowl teams get gutted during the ensuing free agency, but the Eagles weathered the storm pretty well, managing to re-sign linebacker Nigel Bradham while letting several rotation players walk. Perhaps the two most talented departures came via release, as Philly let Vinny Curry and Mychal Kendricks go to save cap space.

While some players walked out the door, GM Howie Roseman wasn’t shy about bringing a few in, restocking a deep defensive line with veterans Michael Bennett (via trade) and Haloti Ngata (free agency). He also replaced Torrey Smith with a cheaper, more versatile deep threat in Mike Wallace, while the duo of Richard Rodgers (free agency) and Dallas Goedert (draft) should offset the losses of Brent Celek and Trey Burton at tight end.

The team navigated its delicate quarterback situation well, extending Nick Foles through 2019 while giving him a nice bonus as thanks for helping the team to a Super Bowl LII title. All signs point to Carson Wentz being cleared from his torn ACL to play in Week 1, which should keep Philadelphia in position to again contend for the Lombardi Trophy.

Outside of Goedert, the Eagles didn’t draft many players who are likely to contribute early, and they were one of only two teams (along with the Titans, who had four) to come away with fewer than six selections.

Offseason Grade: B

FLM Take: Few GMs manage the cap as effectively as Roseman, who did well to keep a Super Bowl-caliber team mostly intact. Here’s a look back at his strategy when taking over for Chip Kelly in 2015.

 

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

Key Acquisitions: QB Alex Smith, WR Paul Richardson, OLB Pernell McPhee, DT Da’Ron Payne, RB Derrius Guice, CB Orlando Scandrick, QB Kevin Hogan, DT Tim Settle; CB Adonis Alexander

Key Losses: QB Kirk Cousins, CB Kendall Fuller, CB Bashaud Breeland, DE Trent Murphy, C Spencer Long, S DeAngelo Hall, WR Ryan Grant, WR Terrelle Pryor, LB Will Compton, OLB Junior Galette, TE Niles Paul

You can criticize Washington for bungling Kirk Cousins’ contract situation in previous offseasons, but the team did the best it could this spring by landing Alex Smith in the QB carousel. Whether or not the cautious but steady signal-caller will fit perfectly in Jay Gruden’s aggressive offense, Washington was smart to grab a stable chair long before the music stopped.

Other than Smith’s extension (four years, $94 million, $71 million guaranteed) and the signing of wideout Paul Richardson (five years, $45 million), Dan Snyder’s wallet took less of a hit than usual, an approach that should yield compensatory picks for Cousins (third-rounder), Spencer Long (fifth), Ryan Grant (sixth) and Terrelle Pryor (sixth) in 2018. Richardson’s health will be key for a thinned out receiving corps, and 2017 sixth-rounder Chase Roullier must step up to replace Long at the pivot. Getting the dynamic Derrius Guice, who could quickly become an offensive centerpiece, late in Round 2 was a coup.

On defense, rookies Da’Ron Payne and Tim Settle could provide a similar boost to a poor run defense, and talented but injury-prone Pernell McPhee was a great buy-low candidate. The team also re-signed linebacker Zach Brown, but major questions remain at cornerback, where Kendall Fuller (part of the package for Smith) and Bashaud Breeland (unsigned) are gone. 2017 third-rounder Fabian Moreau must step up, especially considering Orlando Scandrick’s decline in recent years.

Offseason Grade: B-

FLM Take: It might not bear out in a tough division, but Washington did well to reload despite losing significant talent.