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Should the Giants be the team to beat in the NFC East?

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The Dallas Cowboys won the NFC East last season with a 13-3 record, even after punting the regular-season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles with little at stake in Week 17.

The New York Giants (11-5) finished second in the division, but they swept the Cowboys for the first time since the 2011 season. Head-to-head, they were the better team. By overall record, that honor belonged to Dallas.

So with both teams and their fan bases believing they’ve improved this offseason, who should be the favorites in the division in 2017? My buddy Todd Archer over in Dallas asked the same question from the Cowboys’ perspective earlier this week. There doesn’t appear to be much doubt if you ask quarterback Dak Prescott, though.

“I know we can win every game that we lock in and we focus, and we understand that we’re the team that they have to beat,” Prescott said on “The Doomsday Podcast” with Matt Mosley and Ed Werder. “It’s not the opposite way.”

Las Vegas agrees after the Cowboys revamped their secondary this offseason even without making many significant splashes in free agency. Oddsmakers have Dallas as the favorite to win what most seem to expect will be an extremely competitive NFC East.

The Vegas over/unders: Cowboys 9.5 wins, Giants 8.5, Eagles 8, Washington Redskins 7.5.

That’s the tricky part in this equation. There don’t appear to be any walkovers in the NFC East, and each team faces a difficult schedule that includes the AFC West and NFC West.

Earlier this week, Football Outsiders projected the Cowboys will finish with a 10-6 record, two games better than the Giants (8-8) and Redskins (8-8). The Eagles (7-9) were not far behind.

Strength of schedule plays its part in the projection, no doubt. Philadelphia has the toughest perceived slate of opponents, with the Cowboys not far behind.

According to Football Outsiders:

We still have Dallas repeating as the most likely scenario, although our projections may underrate the importance of their defensive losses because there may be a compound effect from losing so many players at the same position (defensive back). The Giants should be better on offense but may face regression on defense (where they went from 30th in 2015 to second in 2016). Philadelphia was better than its record in 2016 but has dropped slightly since our April forecast, while Washington has moved up a little bit. However, we still have Washington lower than last season, as the Redskins must adapt to a new offensive coordinator and overcome the loss of their top two wide receivers.

It’s interesting that Football Outsiders — using what amounts to be a primarily analytics-based projection — sees the Giants’ defense taking a step back. Usually, when a core of players unites it gets better over time, and the Giants had seven new starters on last season’s defense, including three of their best players (defensive tackle Damon Harrison, defensive end Olivier Vernon and cornerback Janoris Jenkins) who came via free agency. They lost Johnathan Hankins to free agency this offseason and replaced him with second-round pick Dalvin Tomlinson. Even if that is a downgrade, there are reasons to believe that second-year players B.J. Goodson and Darian Thompson will be upgrades at middle linebacker and free safety, respectively, two positions at which the Giants were only serviceable last season.

Talk to anyone in the organization (players, coaches or front office) and there seems to be a belief that this unit can be special. That’s why there was a concerted effort to keep the group together — which the Giants did for the most part — this offseason.

There are signs they will only get better. The Giants gradually improved and allowed 15.0 points per game over the final eight weeks of 2016 after allowing 22.1 points over the first eight weeks.

Of course, the Eagles think they improved by adding offensive weapons (wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith and running backs LeGarrette Blount and Donnel Pumphrey) for young quarterback Carson Wentz. The Redskins believe they’re better after bulking up on the defensive line. The Cowboys are confident they’ll be better with Prescott and star running back Ezekiel Elliott in their second professional seasons behind the league’s best offensive line.

Offensive line is where holes can be poked into the Giants’ prospects. In a division that features three of the league’s best lines, they did little to improve a unit that struggled with run-blocking and to keep pressure off quarterback Eli Manning from the edges.

The Giants’ big blocking additions were tight end Rhett Ellison, wide receiver Brandon Marshall and offensive lineman D.J. Fluker. Is that enough to make them the favorites in the NFC East?

Analytics and Las Vegas apparently aren’t sold. Neither is Prescott.

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