- The Washington Times
Tuesday, October 4, 2022

There’s only one division in the NFL at the moment with three teams boasting winning records. 

And it’s not the one you’d expect. 

After four weeks, the NFC East — yes, the NFC East — looks like it may be the best division in football. Don’t laugh. After all, the 4-0 Eagles are the only undefeated team left. And the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants are right behind at 3-1. Even with the 1-3 Washington Commanders, the four teams have combined for a .688 winning percentage — an NFL high. 

The division has come a long way since 2020. 

Back then, Washington won the East with a lackluster 7-9 record. The division was so bad that year it was on pace to finish with the lowest winning percentage in NFL history — a record the division, 23-40-1 narrowly avoided taking from the lowly 2008 NFC West, which went 22-42 (.344).

The East was the butt of plenty of jokes two years ago.

No one is laughing now. The Eagles have one of the NFL’s best offenses and look like legitimate Super Bowl contenders, with oddsmakers now giving Philadelphia the third shortest odds to win it all. The Cowboys, meanwhile, have been able to withstand the loss of star quarterback Dak Prescott (thumb) because of an elite defense that ranks fifth in defensive DVOA, a Football Outsiders metric that measures efficiency. 

Even the Giants are scrappier than expected. New coach Brian Daboll, hired in the offseason, has been of fresh air from predecessor Joe Judge. New York running back Saquon Barkley — finally healthy — leads the NFL in rushing with 463 yards. And the Giants have earned wins over the Titans, Panthers and Bears.

The quality of the division arguably puts the Commanders in a deeper hole than a 1-3 record would indicate.

“There is a sense of urgency,” said Commanders coach Ron Rivera, whose team is three games back from the division lead. “We’ve gotta get this ship right.” 

Entering the year, the AFC West was the division pundits and executives raved about. The hype was understandable. Who wouldn’t be impressed by a division featuring quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Russell Wilson and Derek Carr? And when the NFL schedule was released in May, schedule-makers loaded the slate with a league-high 19 primetime games featuring AFC West teams — second-most for a division in the Super Bowl era, according to league research. 

So far, the AFC West hasn’t lived up to expectations. Mahomes and the Chiefs dazzled in a “Sunday Night Football” win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to improve to 3-1, but have an odd loss to the Indianapolis Colts. The 2-2 Chargers, in what feels like an annual tradition, have again been ravaged by injuries — including bruised ribs to Herbert, who has managed to play through pain. 

The Broncos are also 2-2, but Wilson has been inconsistent while coach Nathaniel Hackett’s curious in-game management decisions have drawn major scrutiny. The Raiders picked up their first win of the season Sunday, after starting 0-3. 

If there is another division that can make a claim as the NFL’s best at the moment, it’s the AFC North. Though its winning percentage isn’t as high as the NFC East, the AFC North boasts a +34 point differential — topping the NFC East’s +24. 

In the NFC East’s case, the Commanders drag the total number down. The Eagles, Cowboys and Giants have outscored teams by a combined 58 points, with the Eagles (+44) accounting for most of that damage. Washington’s point differential is -34.

But the AFC North doesn’t have a team yet with a winning record. The Bengals, Ravens and Browns are all bunched together at 2-2. The Steelers are 1-3 and have already benched quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

For the NFC East, the biggest question is whether this hot start is sustainable. The division hasn’t had three teams finish the season over .500 since 2016. It hasn’t had three teams make the playoffs since 2007.

Still, the Eagles and the Cowboys rank second and sixth respectively in team DVOA. The only other division with two teams in the top 10 is the AFC West with the Chiefs (eighth) and Chargers (10th). The NFC East has also more than held its own when facing teams outside of the division — posting a league-best 8-2 record against non-divisional opponents.

At the very least, the division is no longer a punching bag.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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