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NFL Power Rankings: How does Dak Prescott's injury reshape the NFC East race?

Frank Schwab
·14-min read

If you heard that a 1-3 team with one of the league’s worst defenses lost its quarterback for the season, you’d write them off immediately.

But the Dallas Cowboys play in the NFC East.

The Cowboys were the only NFC East team to win on Sunday. They happened to play another NFC East team, the New York Giants, so someone was likely to win. That win was costly, to say the least.

The vision of Dak Prescott laying on the ground after suffering a dislocated ankle will be remembered with some of the other infamous, graphic sports injuries through history. It was a horrific sight, a sad moment for Prescott and a huge blow to the Cowboys.

It doesn’t mean the Cowboys can’t still make the playoffs.

Dallas got the win on Sunday thanks to some clutch catches by Michael Gallup to set up a winning field goal. It’s just one win over the Giants, one in which they lost their quarterback who was on pace to throw for more than 6,000 yards this season, but it could end up being a huge one. When seven wins might be good enough for a division crown, every one is big.

Being in the NFC East gives the Cowboys the chance to go to the playoffs, even with Andy Dalton at quarterback. The Eagles are 1-3-1, and they’re clearly the Cowboys’ only real threat in the division. Washington, which is 1-4, is not going to take the division no matter how bad it is. The Giants are 0-5 and while they at least have some talent, it’s very hard to imagine they put together a winning streak.

That leaves the Eagles and Cowboys. Dallas’ offense might still be the best in the division even with Dalton. There’s a lot of talent around Dalton, and he has been a good starter in the NFL before. The Cowboys might have invested in Dalton as a fallback option if Prescott held out on the franchise tag, but it’s a good investment now.

Dallas’ offense won’t be the same without Prescott. Dalton is serviceable but Prescott is better in practically every way. Dallas’ defense is a serious problem. But there’s a ray of hope with Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Gallup. Dalton can get them the ball. The best thing in Dallas’ favor is that the Eagles are wholly unimpressive. Teams change, sometimes with no advance warning, but it’s hard to watch the Eagles over the first five weeks and imagine them being an 8-8 team or even a 7-9 team. If 2-3 Dallas goes 5-6 the rest of the way, I’m not sure the Eagles are good enough to beat them for the division crown. And Dallas still has three games left against Washington and the Giants.

Dallas would be very, very unlikely to do much in the playoffs even if they made it. The defense has shown no signs of stopping anyone. The offense will be OK with Dalton but the ceiling is obviously lower now.

The Cowboys don’t have to be good though. They just have to be good enough to win the NFC East. That’s not a high bar to cross.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton (14) will try to lead his team to the playoffs in Dak Prescott's absence. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton (14) will try to lead his team to the playoffs in Dak Prescott's absence. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

Here are the power rankings after Week 5 of the NFL season (they were updated after the Titans’ win over the Bills on Tuesday):

32. New York Jets (0-5, Last Week: 32)

Could you guess who leads the NFL at 111.7 receiving yards per game? You’d have won plenty of bar bets if you knew it was Jamison Crowder. Crowder has played in just three games due to injury, but he has gained at least 100 yards in each game. For an offense this bad, that’s an accomplishment.

31. New York Giants (0-5, LW: 31)

Daniel Jones threw two touchdowns in the opener. In the four games since, he has thrown 141 passes with no interceptions and three interceptions. Usually, good quarterbacks don’t go that long without throwing at least one score. It’s getting harder and harder to be excited about Jones as the Giants’ answer at quarterback.

30. Washington Football Team (1-4, LW: 30)

It’s a good thing Washington got that Week 1 win. They’ve lost by at least 14 points in every game since. And even in that Week 1 win, they trailed Philadelphia 17-0. Having that “1” next to their name means that we won’t pay much attention to how bad they might be, like we will with the winless teams.

29. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-4, LW: 29)

Before the Jaguars’ Week 3 game, the NFL Network’s pregame show talked about the Jaguars like they were obvious contenders. Well, no. The Jaguars lost their fourth in a row, and they gave up about 1,000 yards over the last two games. They are who we thought they were.

28. Atlanta Falcons (0-5, LW: 27)

Dan Quinn took the fall, and that had to happen. But Matt Ryan’s game has collapsed, too. He was bad on Sunday, from missing Hayden Hurst wide open in the end zone to throwing a truly miserable interception into the end zone late in the game. In Atlanta’s last three games, he has one touchdown and has thrown fewer than 250 yards a game. He needs to be better.

27. Denver Broncos (1-3, LW: 28)

Practically losing a bye week stinks. It’s fair if players are upset about that. But every team knew there was a good chance they’d be inconvenienced this season. The Broncos losing a bye week because their Week 5 game against the Patriots got pushed to next week isn’t ideal, but it could be worse.

26. Detroit Lions (1-3, LW: 25)

Here was Terry Bradshaw on Fox’s pregame show, talking about Matt Patricia (via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press): “Patricia, in Detroit, can’t coach. Smartest guy in the world. Rocket scientist. Engineer. Can’t coach a lick. Can’t hold a lead when they’re leading by 10 points. He’s got to be gone.”

25. Cincinnati Bengals (1-3-1, LW: 24)

The Bengals’ offensive line is still a problem, and that was exposed again against the Ravens. The Bengals have good skill-position talent, and the biggest priority of this next offseason will be getting Joe Burrow some linemen who can keep him upright.

24. Houston Texans (1-4, LW: 26)

Sunday’s win must have been nice for Romeo Crennel. Crennel, Houston’s interim coach, hasn’t been a head coach since a horrible 2-14 season in 2012 with the Kansas City Chiefs. At age 73, he’s not going to get another permanent head coaching job. He is a football lifer, a great defensive coach and him being able to lead the Texans the rest of the season is a fun story.

23. Philadelphia Eagles (1-3-1, LW: 20)

It’s not a good sign that the NFC East is realistically a two-team race, one of the teams lost its quarterback and might have the worst defense in franchise history, and the Eagles still seem like the underdog to win the division.

22. Dallas Cowboys (2-3, LW: 21)

It was far from the most important injury that happened to the Cowboys on Sunday, but losing defensive tackle Trysten Hill to a torn ACL doesn’t help either. The Cowboys defense gave up 34 points to a Giants team that couldn’t move the ball at all the past few weeks, and now will be without another contributor.

21. Los Angeles Chargers (1-4, LW: 22)

I was skeptical about Justin Herbert going into the draft. I’m willing to already admit I was wrong. He has the look of a future star. Monday night was a tough loss, but there’s something to be excited about.

20. Minnesota Vikings (1-4, LW: 19)

It’s easy to criticize Mike Zimmer after the fact for going for it on fourth down. It didn’t work, and Russell Wilson drove downfield to beat them. It wasn’t a bad decision to go for it. He should have maybe run a quarterback sneak, which is practically automatic. Later in the game, he absolutely should have used his timeouts when Seattle’s offense got inside the 20-yard line. That’s an egregious clock management error. But going for it, trying to keep the ball away from Wilson, was not a mistake.

19. San Francisco 49ers (2-3, LW: 15)

The 49ers might be in real trouble. Here is their upcoming schedule: vs. Rams, at Patriots, at Seahawks, vs. Packers, at Saints, at Rams, vs. Bills. A 4-3 record in that stretch would be pretty good, and that would put San Francisco at 6-6. And something much worse than 4-3 is possible.

18. Miami Dolphins (2-3, LW: 23)

Ryan Fitzpatrick is fun to watch. He posted a 154.5 passer rating in one of his Fitzmagic games. But if we’re being honest (lowers voice) ... it kind of is a bummer that every good game from him pushes back Tua Tagovailoa’s arrival in the lineup.

17. Arizona Cardinals (3-2, LW: 16)

Kenyan Drake got in the end zone, but still averaged just 3.3 yards per carry and his role in the passing game has disappeared. At some point, Arizona might start giving Chase Edmonds more carries. He has looked like the better option so far this season and it’s not really close.

16. Carolina Panthers (3-2, LW: 18)

Is there a more likable player in the NFL than Teddy Bridgewater? What he’s done the past three weeks has flown a bit under the radar. It’s still a remarkable story that he came back from nearly losing his career (and possibly his leg) to an unlucky practice injury. He is playing at a high level for a Panthers team that has won three in a row. Anyone can get behind that story.

15. New England Patriots (2-2, LW: 11)

Not that the Patriots were hoping for it, but let’s be honest: Having their game being pushed back to Week 6 is a pretty big break if quarterback Cam Newton and cornerback Stephon Gilmore can be activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list and play. It’s not how they drew it up, but it might save them a loss.

14. New Orleans Saints (3-2, LW: 14)

The Saints made some big plays in the fourth quarter and overtime, and credit them for getting a close win. But it’s impossible to have watched this Saints team five times and believe they’re a legitimate Super Bowl contender. There’s still plenty of talent, especially when Michael Thomas returns, but New Orleans is going to have to play a lot better going forward.

13. Indianapolis Colts (3-2, LW: 9)

While Philip Rivers had a couple of bad decisions on interceptions, it’s fair to ask if he has enough to work with in the passing game. T.Y. Hilton is off to a slow start. Rookie Michael Pittman Jr. is out due to surgery on compartment leg syndrome. Parris Campbell is out due to injury. Mo Alie-Cox might help but gets inconsistent use when Jack Doyle is healthy, for some reason. The lack of dangerous options at receiver and tight end affects the running game, too. It’s an offense with some holes that have nothing to do with Rivers.

12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-2, LW: 8)

The Buccaneers didn’t exactly have their preferred offensive lineup on the field last week, due to injuries. Once Chris Godwin returns, it will change the offense and the Bucs will be back on track. It’s not a big deal to lose on a short week at Chicago.

11. Chicago Bears (4-1, LW: 17)

The Bears have failed to exceed 18 first downs or 269 yards in either of their last two games. You won’t hear as much griping after a win though, and Chicago got a quality victory over Tampa Bay. Still, they need to figure out a way to generate some offense.

10. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2, LW: 13)

What a win. It’s the biggest for the Raiders in Jon Gruden’s second go-around, even bigger than the Saints win just a few weeks ago. The win over the Panthers is looking better, too. The race for playoff spots in the AFC will be tough, but why not the Raiders?

9. Cleveland Browns (4-1, LW: 12)

Myles Garrett had a sack, four quarterback hits and his pressure on Philip Rivers that led to an intentional grounding in the end zone resulted in a safety at a crucial point in the game. He’s going to be in the NFL defensive player of the year conversation all year, and rightfully so.

8. Los Angeles Rams (4-1, LW: 7)

The Rams had some explosive plays in the passing game, as Jared Goff threw for 309 on just 30 attempts, and most of that happened in the rain. Whatever happened in last week’s lackluster win over the Giants, the Rams seem to have shaken it off.

7. Buffalo Bills (4-1, LW: 4)

I won’t jump off the Bills bandwagon or anything. The loss to the Titans was pretty ugly, but it was a weird week leading up to the game. We’ll see how they rebound. I believe the Bills will be just fine.

6. Tennessee Titans (4-0, LW: 10)

We have a hard time letting go of deeply rooted opinions of players. That’s why it’s still pretty tough to come out and admit that Ryan Tannehill might just be one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. But when you throw 31 touchdowns with seven interceptions and your team goes 13-4 in your last 17 starts, it’s probably time to just recognize that this is an unusual story and embrace it.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-0, LW: 6)

It seems weird that the Steelers haven’t been 4-0 since 1979. It’s not like they haven’t been a consistently good franchise since then. Rookie Chase Claypool’s four-touchdown day announced his arrival as a possible star, and continues Pittsburgh’s remarkable track record of drafting receivers.

4. Seattle Seahawks (5-0, LW: 5)

We’ll run out of nice things to say about Russell Wilson before the season is over. There isn’t a situation in which you’d bet against Wilson. He faced two fourth downs on Seattle’s final drive against the Vikings and made both of them look easy.

3. Green Bay Packers (4-0, LW: 3)

The Packers have a strong argument to be No. 1. Their offense has been fantastic and the defense is solid. I prefer the AFC teams, even with a loss for each of them, but this next stretch of four games, including three on the road (at Tampa Bay, at Houston, vs. Minnesota, at San Francisco) could put the Packers in the top spot.

2. Baltimore Ravens (4-1, LW: 2)

The Ravens’ four wins have all come by double digits, with an average margin of 21.8 points. They have played some bad opponents but also beat the 4-1 Browns by 32 points. There are some undefeated teams behind them, but I’ll still stand by the Ravens being the second-best team in football.

1. Kansas City Chiefs (4-1, LW: 1)

I don’t like college football and basketball polls that automatically move a team down due to a loss. It’s the whole body of work. Put simply, the Chiefs lost, but it happens and I’d still pick Kansas City to beat any other NFL team on a neutral field. I’m fine sticking with the Chiefs as the best team in the NFL. It’s not the best idea to drastically change your opinion on a team based on one game.