The NFC East was supposed to be a division filled with intriguing storylines and interesting matchups. It had Romo and Dez in Dallas, Odell Beckham Jr.'s magic hands in New York, all the maneuvering of Chip Kelly in Philly and that long-running soap opera known as the Washington Redskins. At the very least, the division would be entertaining. The NFC East usually has been good for that much.
Instead, it's turned into the most mystifying division in the NFL during the first half of this season. The best team from 2014, Dallas, has been plagued by injuries. The second-best, Philadelphia, has been hamstrung by inconsistency and ineffectiveness. You'd think the Giants would be the biggest surprise, given that they're contending with a horrific defense, but the Redskins somehow have one-upped them. Washington has remained competitive despite benching quarterback Robert Griffin III in the preseason.
What this amounts to is a whole mess of mediocrity. It also creates a difficult task in predicting how this will all sort itself out by the end of the regular season. This much we do know: Somebody has to emerge as the division champion. With that in mind, here's one man's attempt at determining exactly who that will be:
New York Giants (4-4, alone in first place)
Why they can win: The Giants have a pretty favorable schedule in the second half. They have four winnable games against teams with losing records (the Buccaneers, Redskins, Dolphinsand Eagles) and only one contest against a squad that has been dominant (the Patriots, on Nov. 15). That means New York has the potential to play a ton of close games over the next two months. Only one team has really blown out the Giants (Philadelphia beat them 27-7 in the first meeting), while New York's other three losses have all been by four points or less. Those moments should toughen Big Blue down the stretch. Having a combination like Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. doesn't hurt, either. If those two get any real help from the rest of that offense, the Giants have a very real shot at winning this thing.
Why they can't win: Can somebody please explain what the Giants are trying to do on defense? They gave up 52 points against the Saints on Sunday, as New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees lit them up for 505 yards and a record-tying seven touchdown passes. They also allowed fourth-quarter comebacks in each of the first two games of the season, defeats that could haunt this team late in the year. The worst part of all this is that there are no easy fixes. The Giants can't pressure quarterbacks and their secondary can't contain receivers. These are two of the biggest reasons why New York ranks last in the league in total yards allowed (427.5 per game) and passing yards allowed (315.4). The return of defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul might help some, but the man isn't a miracle-worker.
Washington Redskins (3-4, tied for second)
Why they can win: The Redskins will be more dangerous if they can get healthy. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson and cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and Chris Culliver headline the list of players hoping to return from injury in the near future. It's pretty hard to win games without two starting defensive backs and the team's top deep threat. Jackson's return also would give the passing game another weapon to go along with tight end Jordan Reed and fellow wideout Pierre Garcon. The good news here is that quarterback Kirk Cousins has shown some promise in recent weeks, especially when he helped the Redskins erase a 24-point deficit in a 31-30 win over Tampa Bay. If Cousins can become more consistent, the Redskins can stay in this race.
Why they can't win: These are the Redskins. There's enough said with that statement alone. But this team also has problems aside from the typical dysfunction. The running game has disappeared, for one. The Redskins have amassed a total of 135 rushing yards over their last three games, which only puts more pressure on Cousins to make plays. The run defense has become an issue, as well: The Falcons (176 yards rushing), Jets (221) and Bucs (190) have gashed Washington in consecutive weeks. But the biggest concern is the Redskins' schedule over the next three weeks. They play at New England, home against New Orleans and at Carolina. That's two undefeated teams and a third that has ripped off three straight victories. The Redskins will be in a huge hole if they can't find a win somewhere in that stretch.
Philadelphia Eagles (3-4, tied for second)
Why they can win: They're actually playing pretty good defense. The Eagles rank 11th in the league in scoring D (allowing 19.6 points per game) and they gave up just 24 points total in back-to-back wins over the Giantsand Saints in early October. Defensive end Fletcher Cox has performed like a Pro Bowler (with five sacks) and the return of linebacker Kiko Alonso (who's been sidelined with a knee injury) will bolster the front seven even more. Head coach Chip Kelly has never been known for playing to his defense -- he prefers to wear opponents out by running his fast-paced offense -- but this is the best thing about the Eagles right now. Kelly also should make Ryan Mathews the lead back over DeMarco Murray. Mathews leads the team in rushing (on 32 fewer carries than Murray) and has looked like a better fit in that offense since Day 1. More touches for Mathews could make life easier for everyone around the Eagles' backfield.
Why they can't win: The mystique has faded from Kelly's high-octane offensive scheme. It's pretty apparent that opposing defenses have figured out how to attack the Eagles. It's also obvious that Kelly no longer has nearly as much talent in Philadelphia to operate the system on which he built his reputation. Sam Bradford has been such a disaster at quarterback that it's difficult to see him earning a new deal when this season ends. Murray has been equally disappointing in the backfield. The league's top rusher in 2014 is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry and 51.2 yards per game. The Eagles also have been notoriously slow starters this season -- they've been outscored 33-10 in the first quarters of their games -- and that's only put more pressure on an underwhelming offense to make plays. The most glaring issue in Philly: The offense just doesn't have much explosiveness.
Dallas Cowboys (2-5, fourth)
Why they can win: They're still the best team in the division when everyone is healthy. The good news is that Pro Bowl wide receiver Dez Bryant returned to the field last week after missing five games with a broken right foot. Quarterback Tony Romo (broken collarbone) is going to start practicing again this week and hopes to return to game action on Nov. 22, when the Cowboys visit Miami. If the Cowboys can stay within striking distance of their NFC East rivals -- which shouldn't be difficult in this division -- those two players alone will change the game substantially for a team that is averaging a woeful 19 points per game. Right now, a 9-7 record should be good enough to win this division. Assuming Romo does indeed return in Miami, Dallas will have seven games left (including that contest), so they'll have to go on a hell of a run with No. 9 back under center.
Why they can't win: Have you seen this offense lately? Matt Cassel threw for 97 yards in a 13-12 loss to Seattle on Sunday, and he was supposed to be an improvement over Brandon Weeden. Yes, the Cowboys should be better once Bryant and Romo are back on the field together, but this team's chance might be too far gone by that point. The best-case scenario for Dallas was to somehow win half the games that Romo missed once he went down. The Cowboys now have lost five straight since that point. If that's not bad enough, the team also is dealing with non-strategic issues, including the recent antics of defensive end Greg Hardy. The Cowboys already had enough problems without adding unnecessary distractions to the equation.
The tempting option is the Cowboys, solely because they could heat up quickly with a healthy Romo. The realistic choice is New York. Right now the Giants have the best quarterback, and they easily could be 6-2 if they hadn't blown their first two games. Those two facts mean plenty in a division as weak as this. The G-Men certainly won't run away with it -- and their defense will continue to be a problem -- but there's more to like about New York than anyone else in the East.