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NFC East even more up for grabs with Elliott out

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Ezekiel Elliott's six-game suspension thrusts an already tight NFC East into an even wilder wilderness heading into the 2017 season.

Elliott can appeal the suspension, which could make the situation murkier, but as it stands today the NFL's leading rusher won't return until Week 8. If the suspension holds, Zeke would miss games against the New York Giants, Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers.

The Dallas Cowboys losing their biggest weapon for more than a third of the season would be a major blow for the reigning NFC East champs. Dallas won the division last season on the back of Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott with a 13-3 record, two games ahead of the wild-card Giants.

Elliott is poised to be the first defending rushing yardage champ to miss multiple games to start the following season since 1993 when Emmitt Smith held out for the first two games and the Cowboys went 0-2. The Cowboys won the Super Bowl that season.

With Prescott, Dez Bryant and one of the best offensive lines in football, Elliott's suspension is not a death knell for the Cowboys' season, but it is a huge jolt -- like if Daenerys lost one of her dragons on Game of Thrones.

Without Zeke on the field in 2016, the Cowboys' offense was worse across the board. Dallas earned 1.3 fewer yards per carry and 0.8 fewer yards per play sans Elliott. Prescott's life got harder without Zeke. The QB had a 60.1 completion percentage when Elliott wasn't on the field, compared to 72.6 with the back. In games Prescott threw the ball 35-plus times, the Cowboys scored nearly a touchdown fewer, per NFL Research.

With questions on Dallas' defense, the NFC East already appeared to be one of the most hotly contested divisions in the NFL. If Elliott misses six games, the door for the Giants, Eagles and Redskins to knock off the defending champs opens wider.

The Giants, who beat the Cowboys twice last season with Zeke in the lineup, boast improved firepower on offense to go with an already stout defense. The Eagles upgraded their pass rush this offseason and provided Carson Wentz with more weaponry in his second season. The Redskins improved their defensive front seven and own an intriguing, if unproven, set of receivers in Terrelle Pryor, Jamison Crowder and Josh Doctson.

The positive spin for the Cowboys -- aside from Dak's improvement in Year 2 -- is they face just one NFC East opponent during the first six games of the season (Week 1 versus New York). Dallas went 3-3 in the division last season (counting the meaningless season-finale loss to the Eagles) and still won the crown by two games. Elliott is currently slated to return for the Week 8 matchup at the Redskins, meaning he would play in five of the six pivotal divisional contests.

Dallas' opening slate is brutal without Elliott, facing four teams that ranked in the top 10 in total defense in 2016, and the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers, who beat the Cowboys in the playoffs. Prescott will be tasked with keeping his team afloat while waiting for Elliott's return.

The NFC East is routinely one of the most unpredictable divisions in the NFL. Even with Elliott in the lineup, it looked to be again in 2017. The suspension to one of the division's best players ensures it will be a wild ride once again.

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