NFL division preview: NFC East

Tyler Dragon
USA TODAY Sports Plus

Collectively, the Cowboys have the ingredients of an explosive offense.

On the other side, defense is an issue.

Will they pull it together to take the NFC East?

USA TODAY Sports+ examines each division prior to kickoff of the 2021 NFL season. And there's plenty of intrigue surrounding this unique year, which features 17 games after the NFL expanded its regular season for the first time since 1978.

The playoffs will begin the weekend of Jan. 15 and Los Angeles will host Super Bowl LVI Feb. 13, 2022.

Now, let's get into it.

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NFC East

Team to beat? Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) during training camp at the Marriott Residence Inn.

Throw last year out the window. The Cowboys’ season was essentially over when quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 5. Prescott had three-straight games of at least 450 passing yards at the time of his gruesome injury versus the New York Giants.

Despite Prescott’s injury, Dallas was still in playoff contention the entire year.

Prescott is back healthy, Ezekiel Elliott is motivated to prove he’s still a top tier running back, the club has one of the best receiving corps in the NFL and the offensive line should once again be stout.

The Cowboys struggled mightily on defense in 2020, though. Dallas surrendered the second most rushing yards a game (158.8) and ranked 28th in points allowed a game (29.6).

NEW DEFENSE: Cowboys DC Dan Quinn bringing new mentality to defensive unit

The Cowboys secondary is a concern, but their front seven should be in good hands with defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and linebackers Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and rookie Micah Parsons.

Despite some issues to resolve, the Cowboys enter the season a threat to win the NFC East for the first time since 2018. The pressure is on second-year Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy to get Dallas back into the postseason.

Team on the rise? Washington Football Team

The Washington Football Team won the NFC East 7-9 last season. It marked the third time Washington won the division since 2012.

If the WFT wants to repeat, it has to get more production out of the quarterback and wide receiver positions.

Journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick takes over at quarterback for Ron Rivera’s club. The 38-year-old veteran is a gunslinger who has up-and-down performances.

Fitzpatrick is tasked with trying to improve an offense that ranked 30th in the league in 2020. WR Terry McLaurin, TE Logan Thomas and RBs Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic are playmakers Fitzpatrick can rely on during his first year in Washington.

The strength of the club is on defense. Washington boasts four first-round picks along its starting defensive line. The defense ranked No. 2 in the NFL last year and the unit got better this offseason when they signed cornerback William Jackson III during free agency.

Team with some intrigue? New York Giants

New York is thrilled to have RB Saquon Barkley back after a season-ending ACL injury in Week 2 of last year. The Giants plan to be cautious with their stud running back.

New York also boasts prized free-agent acquisition WR Kenny Golladay, so third-year QB Daniel Jones has weapons on offense. The Giants are hopeful Jones takes another leap this year as a quarterback.

FINDING RHYTHM: The Giants offense is coming together at the right time ahead of the 2021 regular season

New York’s secondary could be among the best. The team’s starting defensive backfield consists of corners James Bradberry and Adoree' Jackson and safeties Jabrill Peppers and Logan Ryan. The Giants had the third best red zone defense in 2020.

Team with the most ground to make up? Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks Jalen Hurts (1), Joe Flacco (7) and Nick Mullens watch practice last week. Veterans have been impressed with how Hurts, a second-year player out of Oklahoma, is running the offense in training camp.

The Eagles appear to be the team in the division with the most ground to make up, although, the Giants don’t have a rosy outlook either.

Philadelphia finished a lousy 4-11-1 in 2020. Second-year pro Jalen Hurts takes the reins as full-time starting quarterback. Hurts will have to show Eagles brass he’s a franchise QB. There were rumors the Eagles flirted with the idea of trading for quarterback Deshaun Watson this offseason. Philly later traded for QB Gardner Minshew.

However, if the Eagles have a revolving door along their offensive line again, it won’t matter who lines up under center. The Eagles O-line was plagued by injuries last year and it led to the club giving up an NFL-high 65 sacks.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Here are 9 Eagles that could shine this season

Philly’s defense is powered by its defensive line. Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave and Brandon Graham are disruptors up front. The secondary is led by cornerback Darius Slay.

There is talent in the City of Brotherly Love, but the road to a division title is long.