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Best and Worst Scenarios: 2016 NFC East Outlook

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Cowboys Headlines - Best & Worst Scenarios for NFC East Teams: 2016 Outlook

In the Tony Romo era, the NFC East has been called many things, but certainly not predictable. Over the past ten seasons, the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles have won 3 division titles each, while the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins have won two, respectively.

Over that period of time, no team has won back to back division crowns.

Playoff appearances have been anything but consistent for these clubs over the past ten seasons. No team has made it to the postseason more than half the time since 2006.

But if there is one constant here, it is that the unexpected can be expected.

New York won two Super Bowls (2007 and 2011) after being written off by many, based on unimpressive regular season records in their championship years (10-6 and 9-7). Washington managed to win a division title in 2012 with a rookie quarterback, and then another last year despite being picked as the consensus division losers in the preseason. Philadelphia featured some unpredictability under Chip Kelly the past two seasons.

Dallas is no different. The health of Tony Romo has always made them difficult to forecast. It also seems like when expectations are high, they are never met, but when they are low, they are exceeded. The last two seasons are a perfect example of this trend.

Overall, the unpredictability of the NFC East makes for an interesting best versus worst case analysis for each team in 2016.

2016 Dallas Cowboys

Ceiling: 12-4 scenario

Dallas takes advantage of one of their lightest schedules in recent memory, picking up right where they left off in 2014. Ezekiel Elliott is Offensive Rookie of the Year and then some, while Dez Bryant dominates in the red zone for another year. The offense reigns supreme in time of possession behind an All-Pro offensive line, keeping their defense fresh. The team is a top-five finisher in total offense.

The defense stays off the field -- as it did in 2014 -- and wins the turnover battle often. A healthy Sean Lee anchors the front-seven at a Pro Bowl level. The secondary carries the thin defensive front-four as the team boasts a nice one-two punch with Orlando Scandrick and Byron Jones.

Morris Claiborne finally flashes that top-ten potential in his contract year. DeMarcus Lawrence posts double-digit sacks despite missing the first four games as the pass rush exceeds expectations.

Oh yeah, and Romo stays healthy for a full 16.

Floor: 4-12 scenario

Plain and simple, Romo goes down again and the team implodes.

Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott is thrown into the mix too soon, and the offense struggles. Dez Bryant becomes frustrated as the ball is not coming his way enough, and Elliott can't establish himself as a premier rusher as he starts to see too many loaded boxes.

The lack of talent on the defensive line haunts the team all year, and the secondary suffers as a result. The team picks in the top-five again in the 2017 NFL Draft.

2016 New York Giants

Ceiling: 11-5 scenario

The phrase, "the best ability is availability" was surely invented for Eli Manning. He plays yet another full season as he posts statistically his best year yet through the air. Odell Beckham Jr. continues tearing apart opposing secondaries as rookie Sterling Shepard steps nicely into the wide receiver two role.

The team's three big free agency signings of Janoris Jenkins, Olivier Vernon, and Damon Harrison live up to their contracts as the team's defense begins to have shades of their recent title years.

Floor: 6-10 scenario

The belief that winners in March are hardly ever winners in January proves true here, as their free agent moves fail to live up to the hype. The offense keeps them in many games, as it did last year, but once again they fail to close them out.

What the team produces in the passing game, it lacks severely on the ground as the offense becomes too one-dimensional.

2016 Washington Redskins

Ceiling: 10-6 scenario

Kirk Cousins continues to develop and improve, and Washington wins back-to-back division titles for the first time since 1984. Cousins leads a talented passing arsenal of Josh Doctson, Jordan Reed, and DeSean Jackson, complimented by an underrated Matt Jones running the ball. Their offense carries the team.

Defensively, Josh Norman backs up his talk and contract figures and has another All-Pro year. The 28th ranked defense from a year ago gets a much-needed boost.

Floor: 6-10 scenario

Never beating a team with a winning record continues to hang over Cousins' head, as Washington digresses.

The team has the toughest schedule in the division, and playing teams like Carolina and Arizona prove too much for Washington's shaky defense. Josh Norman falls into the long list of bad Dan Snyder contracts as the surrounding lack of defensive talent dooms him.

2016 Philadelphia Eagles

Ceiling: 9-7 scenario

Change is good in Philly as Doug Pederson and a brand new defensive coordinator take the Eagles to a winning season.

The 30th ranked defense from a season ago becomes more formidable as the offense causes matchup problems on the other end. Carson Wentz takes over as the starter, exceeds expectations and makes the most out of Darren Sproles, Jordan Matthews, and Ryan Mathews. Nelson Agholor has the second year breakout that many thought would come a year ago.

Floor: 4-12 scenario

The Eagles suffer the aftermath of the post-Chip Kelly overhaul in the worst way. The lack of offensive talent gets thinner as injuries continue to linger into the season for Matthews and Mathews. Philly falls victim to a QB carousel, and the 30th ranked defense from a year ago doesn't improve nearly enough to win games.



Die hard Dallas Cowboys fan behind enemy lines here in New Jersey. CBS Sports employee and contributor for InsideTheStar.com.

Dallas Cowboys

Next Day Rant: Dak Prescott Shows Big Flaws in Big Win

Jess Haynie

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Dak Prescott

The Cowboys scored a major win last night in Philadelphia and we're all basking in the glory of a Victory Monday. But even in victory, Quarterback Dak Prescott showed some pretty concerning flaws. Dallas won a battle last night, but do they have a QB who's going to help them win the war?

If you didn't watch the game and only looked at Prescott's stats, you'd probably tell me I'm crazy for writing about this. Dak put up a 102.8 passer rating with 270 yards, one touchdown, zero turnovers, and 72% on his completions.

That rating doesn't even account for his rushing touchdown, either. Throw in the overall story of leading his team to a must-have win on the road against the defending Super Bowl Champions, and Dak Prescott certainly had a good night overall.

But if you watched, you saw him miss some really easy passes. Ezekiel Elliott was open in the flat with room to make a play, but an errant throw put it the ball out of reach. Cole Beasley was barely past the line of scrimmage, and again Prescott's inaccuracy killed the play.

Later in the game, Dak failed to read that Michael Gallup was open with a chance at a long touchdown. Instead he went safe, and it went nowhere.

Chris Collinsworth pointed that play out. He also noted, accurately, several times that Prescott was staring down receivers. One time should've resulted in a pick-six for the Eagles, but the defender dropped the ball.

Jekyll or Hyde: Year 3 "Prove It" Season For Dak Prescott? 1

Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott

I know what you're probably thinking; "This guy is just a bitter Romo fan who is rooting for Dak to fail." Nothing could be further from the truth.

I applauded the decision to stick with Prescott in 2016. I've been so excited for the prospect of this fouth-round steal becoming the foundation of the next Dallas dynasty. I like Dak immensely as a person and leader.

But in Year 3, I'm not seeing growth from that exciting rookie season. There's no indication that Dak Prescott has improved at all from 2016.

That would be okay if all other things remained status quo. The Cowboys were good enough to be 14-2 that year, giving away the Week 17 game to rest for the playoffs. The 2016 version of Prescott was more than adequate.

But then defensive coordinators had time to figure him out. And over the same span of time, Dallas' legendary tight end retired. Plus, it's stalwart offensive line started wearing down.

These things happen. Few things are constant in sports, and great players have to keep developing to overcome them.

But Prescott is still making poor throws, missing opportunities, and holding the ball too long. He's making rookie mistakes in his junior year.

This isn't a young QB who's been asked to deal with ongoing changes in the coaching staff on a bad team. Even to the chagrin of some, Jerry Jones has kept the staff in tact to give stability to Prescott and the rest of the roster.

Eventually, these weaknesses in Dak's game can no longer be attributed to age. At some point, they may just be who he is.

Dak In Time: Cowboys Need Prescott to Return to Rookie Form

Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott

About two weeks after the Cowboys took Prescott in the 2016 NFL Draft, I wrote an article titled "Dak Prescott Probably Isn't the Future." I discussed the general career outcomes for quarterbacks taken in the fourth round, and how Dak would be a very rare specimen if he turned into a competitive starter.

In about one more year, the Cowboys will have to decide if they want to stay married to Prescott. His rookie contract expires after the 2019 season.

At this point, despite anything coming out of Jerry Jones' mouth, has Dak really shown enough to deserve a long-term commitment?

It's easy for the front office to say nice things now. It's the right thing to do; support your guy while he's your guy.

But this time next year, and especially in 2020, will Dak Prescott still be their guy?

It's hard to say right now. Everyone is riding high off that win, but those errant throws and missed big play opportunities will rear the head again this year. And as long as they keep happening, Dallas is going to lose more games than they win.

When everyone sobers up today, they will still see that this is a 4-5 team. They'll see Carson Wentz in Philly, and the likelihood that the Giants will be picking up a Top 5 talent at QB in the next draft.

Do we really have a quarterback that can keep the Cowboys competitive in the NFC East, let alone the NFL, for seasons to come?

I sure hope so. But unless Prescott starts cutting out the rookie mistakes, then the dark cloud of uncertainty isn't going away. Last night was fun, but it will be quickly forgotten if we're headed to another middling finish and missed playoffs.

Throw Jason Garrett, Scott Linehan, and Kellen Moore under the bus all you want. They probably deserve it.

But so far this this year, so does Dak Prescott.



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Game Notes

Sean’s Scout: Leaning on Elliott, Young Defense Earns Cowboys Win in Philly

Sean Martin

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Sean's Scout: Leaning on Elliott, Young Defense Earns Cowboys Win in Philly

On a short week after their Monday night loss, the Dallas Cowboys came into Philadelphia given little chance of escaping with their first road win here in week ten of 2018. The Eagles were rested off their bye week, and despite not playing up to their championship level of a year ago, had far fewer problems compared to the Cowboys coming in with speculation that a sixth loss could lead to significant coaching changes.

Such is why games are decided between the lines. Complete with some pregame scuffles, the Cowboys gave the Eagles all they could handle with Running Back Ezekiel Elliott eclipsing 100 rushing yards for the first time since week six.

Elliott's 151 yards with two touchdowns were enough for a tenacious Cowboys defense to come up with enough stops, forcing one turnover on rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch's first interception.

Losers of two straight coming into hostile territory, the Cowboys have a win to build on through the back half of a difficult schedule. Playing up to their potential for the first time since acquiring Wide Receiver Amari Cooper, the Cowboys will simply be relieved to touch down in Dallas as winners at the Eagles 27-20.

Here are my notes on exactly how they got there.

  • Of all the surprising things Leighton Vander Esch has done for the Cowboys defense this season, his first quarter interception of Carson Wentz was probably the most expected play.

Vander Esch's coverage skills coming out of Boise State were much more developed than anything he's shown against the run with the Cowboys. His ability to get depth and read the quarterback was one of the few strengths that were evident on his tape, with the rest of his outlook being a projection on how his athleticism would translate to NFL play.

Obviously, the rookie has made a bigger overall impact than even the Cowboys could have expected. Paying a steep price for LVE at 19th overall, the Cowboys have their replacement for Sean Lee (out once again in this game), something impossible to put a price on given what losing Lee has meant to past seasons.

Vander Esch's interception of Wentz set up the Cowboys first score in a game they would never trail. Leighton and Safety Jeff Heath assured this on back-to-back plays late in the fourth, as Vander Esch made a sensational play in space against Corey Clement for a loss of three.

Turning a third and two into fourth and seven, Heath drove on Zach Ertz and tackled him short of the line to gain to turn Philadelphia over and allow the Cowboys to run the clock down.

  • Already without rookie Left Guard Connor Williams, the Cowboys appeared to be in for a long night when Right Guard Zack Martin exited with an ankle injury.

Martin would work his way back onto the field as his usual self, but the Cowboys handled the brief absence of both starting guards very well. On the first play with Adam Redmond on the field for Martin, the Cowboys dialed up a quick slant to Amari Cooper.

Prescott trusted Cooper to win on a route he's dominated since coming into the league, and the Cowboys newest weapon at WR did just that to move the chains on third and seven. The Cowboys red zone play calling left a lot to be desired in this game still, but getting points immediately after the loss of Martin was an important moment early in this must-win game.

More importantly, it was great to see Prescott develop his confidence in Cooper as his go-to receiver, something that's helping the entire Dallas offense find its footing.

  • Jaylon Smith's fourth down stop will overshadow this play, but Xavier Woods' pass breakup on the third down before it might have been his best play of the season.

Right at the heart of the Cowboys and Eagles scuffle before kickoff was Cowboys Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard.

It's well-known that Richard's expertise is coaching the back seven of a defense, coming over from a Seahawks defense that featured one of the most talented secondaries in recent memory. One player that Richard and the Cowboys are still trying to find a true role for is Xavier Woods, who had his share of negative plays in coverage on Sunday night as well.

Playing closer to the line of scrimmage on a third and short for the Eagles, Woods got a fantastic read on a pass from Wentz into the flat and broke on it to arrive first and knock it away. These are the types of plays that Woods made consistently in college, and if Richard can find ways to put him in position to be around the ball more, the Cowboys may have another welcome addition to their defense.

Off the turnover on downs, the Cowboys once again drove for a field goal, though not without a fourth down conversion via fake punt and Elliott's highlight reel hurdle.

For the most part, both Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan coached this game with their backs to the wall, and without scoring a touchdown that was clear on this drive as they rewarded their defense with three more points.

  • This shouldn't be something we just now have to praise Linehan for, but he did a great job sticking with Elliott on the drive following Brett Maher's miss from 42 yards. 

The Eagles tied the game on a short field when Wentz found Ertz from 15 yards out, and looked poised to take back momentum. Elliott had just gained 50 yards on carries of 15 and 35 on a drive that came up empty for the Cowboys. Coming back onto the field in a tie game, I was worried Linehan would rely too much on Prescott's arm, but instead kept Philadelphia guessing while feeding the hot hand in Elliott.

On the Cowboys first series with the game tied at 13, Elliott touched the ball on the first three plays to move the chains with one reception and two rushes. He would rip off an 18 yard run two plays later, and walk into the end zone for his second receiving TD of the season to cap off the drive.

Of course, it took yet another touchdown for the Cowboys to take the lead for good, and this one was also provided by Elliott on a one yard plunge.

The Marc Colombo effect is a real thing for the Cowboys offensive line, paving the way for Elliott's heroic night. Their emphasis on getting to the second level and playing better in space was evident in not only the run game but on a few crucial WR screens as well.

  • Lance Lenoir played in his second regular season game for the Cowboys, both of which now being wins at the Eagles.

The practice squad receiver was called up to the active roster this week, and found a way to make an impact on special teams. Lenoir was given a chance to return punts as a UDFA last year, but his struggles on STs forced the Cowboys to keep him on the practice squad for his rookie season.

Lenoir did play in the Cowboys meaningless week 17 win last year.

With a deep group of receivers for Lenoir to work through this summer as well, the Western Illinois product had been working on the practice squad again before earning this opportunity. Covering the Cowboys final punt of the game, Lenoir closed the angle on Golden Tate as the only Cowboy downfield in that moment.

The Eagles came after the punt as they should have, forcing the Cowboys to commit numbers inside to protect. Lenoir's efforts in the open field limited the return on a clean punt by Jones. The Eagles final drive began on their own 32, as Wentz would earn one throw with a chance to reach the end zone and come up short on a completion to Ertz.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

The Cowboys schedule doesn't get easier from here, as they'll revisit the site of the "Burning of Atlanta" next Sunday. Last year's Cowboys loss in Atlanta was the beginning of the end of that season, and through nine weeks this year it felt like the turning point for perhaps Garrett's tenure and Prescott's time under center.

The Cowboys were able to deafen the outside noise surrounding the uncertain future of this team and play up to potential on the road for the first time at the Eagles. This starts with Prescott's efficient night, something that must inspire confidence for him to put any result from last year behind him and focus on the tall task at hand of climbing the NFC East standings at 4-5.

With a home win on Sunday, the Washington Redskins remained in the division lead at 6-3. They play in AT&T Stadium on Thanksgiving.

As if this Cowboys win didn't prove that the NFL is a week-to-week league, Cowboys Nation should be intrigued by this week's result for the Falcons - a loss at the Cleveland Browns 28-16.

Tell us what you think about "Sean’s Scout: Leaning on Elliott, Young Defense Earns Cowboys Win in Philly" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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Game Notes

Despite Win over Eagles, Scott Linehan’s Job Not Secure

John Williams

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Is Dak Prescott's Relationship with Scott Linehan Broken?

Per reports from Ian Rapaport of NFL.com, the Dallas Cowboys considered firing Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan during the team’s bye week. Instead they fired Offensive Line Coach Paul Alexander and trades for Amari Cooper to attempt to ignite the offense. Despite a win over division rival Philadelphia Eagles, Scott Linehan's job should still be in jeopardy. Nothing that happened on Sunday Night Football should change that.

Seriously.

Here is what Rapoport had to say:

Ian Rapoport on Twitter

From @gmfb Weekend: The #Cowboys seriously weighed moving on from OC Scott Linehan during the bye week and have an affinity for #OU coach Lincoln Riley if they move on from Jason Garrett... who @MikeGarafolo says may take back play-calling. https://t.co/8HRHaSKAHw

The Dallas Cowboys were facing an Eagles secondary that was already down a starting outside cornerback in Jalen Mills and their starting slot corner Sydney Jones. Ronald Darby, the other Eagles starting outside corner went down with a knee injury in the game and missed the rest of the contest.

The Cowboys should have won that game from the outset and the offense should have had some success against a hurting Eagles secondary. We shouldn't be surprised at the success the Cowboys had passing against UDFAs and guys getting their first extended run on defense.

Linehan called an okay game for most of the night, finding ways to get his wide receivers open and Dak Prescott had his best game of the season in a hostile environment. He got the ball in Ezekiel Elliott's hands early and often and the offensive line responded with probably their best game of the season.

Yet, on the most important drive of the game when the Cowboys were up seven and needed a first down to ice the game, Linehan reminded us all why he needs to be fired.

The final series was an illustration of what it means to get "too cute" as an offensive coordinator.

Elliott had been gashing the Philadelphia Eagles defensive line up the middle all night, Linehan calls a toss play. Elliott runs left and the Dallas Cowboys have a hard time blocking it up and Elliott is tackled for a loss. A toss play is not a bad play, but on a drive when you can't afford a loss of yardage and you've been effective up the middle, you keep going where you've been winning. Prior to the toss, Elliott was averaging 8.44 yards per carry and had more than 100 yards after contact. The Dallas interior was playing great, so why not keep the game in their hands?

Here's Ezekiel Elliott's run chart provided by NFL.com's Next Gen Stats.

Time is Running Out for Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan

As you can see from the chart, Elliott and the offensive line were killing them up the middle or with off tackle. Only once did they try to run wide. It worked, but most of his damage was done inside the hashmarks.

On second down in trying to get some cheap yards, he throws a bubble screen to Cole Beasley. Again, not a bad play call in general, but when you need yards, you took the ball out of your best player's hands.

On third down, Linehan went with another curious play call when he had Dak Prescott run a quarterback draw. It wasn't good execution by Dak as he ran into his own blocker and the play went for a loss.

On the most important drive of the game against a defense that was offering little resistance, Linehan went soft and didn't give his offensive line an opportunity to drive a nail in the coffin of the Eagles defense.

In addition to the final drive, the Cowboys struggled for another week in the red zone, only scoring on 60% of their possessions inside the Eagles 20 yard line. The Dallas Cowboys have been below average in the red zone all season long and Sunday night is just another example of the ineffectiveness of the offense, even against a very banged up defense.

Scott Linehan made a lot of changes to the coaching personnel in the offseason removing the offensive line coach, quarterbacks coach, and wide receivers coach. The offense has looked dysfunctional and has been criticized for being too predictable dating back to late last season by players and analysts alike. Wide receivers for two years, including former Cowboys Wide Receiver Dez Bryant, have been critical of the offense. With the offense still struggling heading into the bye week, Linehan survived another offensive assistant when Alexander was let go. At some point Linehan is going to run out of offensive assistants to scape goat and it's going to come down to him.

While they were able to score 27 points against the Eagles on Sunday night, don't count me as convinced that the offense is "fixed."

One game does not change what the offense has been, because for the most part, it's been average-to-bad in three out of the four years Linehan's been here. Since 2015, when Scott Linehan took over the play calling duties, the Dallas Cowboys offense has ranked 31st, 5th, 14th, and 26th in points and 22nd, 5th, 14th, and 27th in yards. Perhaps we can give him a pass for 2015 when he had to roll out Brandon Weedn, Matt Cassell, and Kellen Moore for much of the season, but if you look at the history of his offense's they've been rather average.

Since 2005, Linehan's offenses have ranked in the top 10 in scoring only three times. In seven of the last 13 seasons, Linehan's offenses have finished in the bottom half of the league in scoring and five times in the bottom third of the league in scoring. Not since he was the offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings with Dante Culpepper and Randy Moss in 2002-2004, has Scott Linehan had an offense finish in the top 10 in scoring two years in a row.

Scott Linehan is probably what his record states he is; an average offensive coordinator.

If the Dallas Cowboys have seriously considered moving on from him, then they probably need to go ahead and do so. It's not working out with Scott Linehan and this current group of players. If the Dallas Cowboys really believe that Dak Prescott is the future, then they need to get him with an offensive play caller who can utilize Dak's abilities better than Linehan can.

Linehan may have delayed the inevitable for another week, but he'll have to be better for the rest of the season to stay the Cowboys play caller moving forward. Scott Linehan has been on the hot seat for weeks.

The Cowboys picked up the victory, but the W hasn't turned the heat down on Linehan's job evaluation. He still has a lot to prove moving forward.



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