Fact or Fiction: Toughest 2019 opponent?

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1. The AFC East is a tougher slate than the NFC North (Giants play both divisions this year). 

JOHN SCHMEELK: Fiction -- The Patriots trump everyone when it comes to strength of opponent, but after that, I would be surprised if anyone else in the AFC East is a serious playoff contender. The Dolphins seem ready to enter a rebuild, while the Jets and Bills are starting quarterbacks going into their second seasons. Their rosters are improving but they are not there yet. Meanwhile, in the NFC North, there are scenarios where the Vikings, Bears and Packers could all make the playoffs. The Lions are probably just as good as the other three AFC East teams, too.

DAN SALOMONE: Fiction – For whatever reason, the Giants just do well against the AFC East. It’s a shame the division only comes around every four years. In 2007, the Giants went 3-1. In 2011, they were 4-0. Even in 2015, when they were far from a Super Bowl team like the previous two times, they were 2-2. That year, they lost to the Patriots by one point and to the Jets on a field goal in overtime. 

LANCE MEDOW: Fiction -- The Jets and Bills will be leaning on second-year quarterbacks in 2019 with Sam Darnold and Josh Allen, respectively, and the Dolphins quarterback situation is up in the air after Ryan Tannehill was traded to the Titans. The signal callers in a division aren’t the only indication of how competitive the teams will be, but on top of that there are two new head coaches in Adam Gase with the Jets and Brian Flores with the Dolphins. I think it’s safe to say there’s a lot more of the unknown with the respect to the AFC East versus that NFC North. The Bears are coming off a very strong season, and despite the departure of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, will still showcase one of the best units in the league. The Vikings are entering year two with Kirk Cousins at quarterback and, like the Bears, have a solid defense. Coach Matt Patricia has a year under his belt in Detroit. While the Packers hired a new coach, the fact is Aaron Rodgers is still in the mix and they bolstered their defense in free agency, which bodes very well for Green Bay’s chances of returning to the playoffs.

2. The most difficult road game on the 2019 schedule will be at New England.

SCHMEELK: Fact -- It is nearly impossible to win in New England against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Since 2002, the Patriots have the best home record in the NFL. They are the Super Bowl Champions. It isn’t even close, but the Eagles, Bears and Cowboys would be next on this list.

SALOMONE: Fiction – Have you seen the Giants’ past 10 games at Lincoln Financial Field? They have won just two there in that span. The Eagles have outscored them by an average of nearly 12 points in those eight losses, including three by 20 points or more. Gillette Stadium is just as tough for opponents, but for some weird cosmic reason, I feel better about the Giants going in there and getting a W. This will be just the second game for Eli Manning at the home of the Patriots in the regular season, and he won the first one in Week 9 of the Giants’ 2011 championship season.

MEDOW: Fiction -- I think the most difficult challenge will come in Chicago when they visit the Bears. Depending on when that game is scheduled, weather could be a factor, and as I mentioned above, the Bears have one of the best defenses in the league. I’m sure Matt Nagy will have a few tricks up his sleeve now that he’s fully implemented his offense following his first full season as the head coach. While both rosters will be different, the Giants and Bears played a highly contested overtime affair in 2018 at MetLife Stadium, and I don’t see why that level of intensity will be any different in Chicago, especially since both teams have had opportunities to acclimate to their new coaches and schemes.

3. The Cowboys will be the biggest challenge to the Giants in the NFC East. 

SCHMEELK: Fiction -- Can I say this is a tie between the Eagles and Cowboys? Both those teams are well constructed and should be competing for the division title and a wild card spot. The Cowboys have one of the best young defenses in the league with a good balance of pass rush, linebacker play, and coverage in the secondary. They will also have Amari Cooper for an entire season. The Eagles, meanwhile, have one of the best pass rushes in the league and an explosive passing game with Carson Wentz, Zach Ertz, Desean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery. Both teams will be a huge challenge for the Giants in 2019.

SALOMONE: Fact – Dak will be Dak and Zeke will be Zeke, but that defense sets the Cowboys apart from the rest of the field. Dallas’ D finished sixth and seventh in points and yards, respectively, last season, and it is full of young players entering their prime. The Cowboys in recent years have been boom or bust, but that defense should bring more consistency.

MEDOW: Fact -- I wouldn’t sleep on the Eagles, especially with Carson Wentz and the secondary returning to full health, but at this point in the offseason, it’s hard to argue the Cowboys aren’t the team to beat. Dallas is the reigning NFC East champ and will essentially return the nucleus of the 2018 team. Wide receiver Amari Cooper will have a full training camp with the team, tight end Jason Witten is back in the mix, as is Ezekiel Elliott, who has spearheaded one of the best rushing attacks in the league over the last few seasons. While it’s easy to talk up the offense, I actually think the defense is underrated. Even though Dallas doesn’t have an overwhelming number of household names on that side of the ball, that unit has consistently produced. Linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith provide a nice one-two punch in the middle of the defense, and they just locked up their best pass rusher in Demarcus Lawrence. The secondary showcases several young players who have come into their own. The Cowboys have been an extremely balanced team over the last few seasons, and that’s why it’s no surprise they’ve won three of the last five division titles.

4. With less than two weeks to go, the level of uncertainty about this draft is higher than most years.

SCHMEELK: Fact -- I think this is going to be a CRAZY draft. With so few skill position players likely to go early in the draft and a large tier of players without much separation between them, I would wager that one team’s draft board may look very different than someone else’s. There will undoubtedly be a pick that will surprise experts because no one will have had it in their pre-draft mocks. I would also suspect it might mean a lot of trades, with teams targeting specific players that other teams in the league might not be as high on.

SALOMONE: Fiction – I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen. You don’t have a clue what’s going to happen. Schmeelk and Medow certainly don’t have a clue what’s going to happen. So it feels about normal. You know how if you repeat a word a bunch of times, it starts to lose meaning? That’s where I am with mock drafts, which are updated on an hourly basis at this point in the year. But, hey, that’s what makes this so fun. I can’t wait to see what happens in two weeks.

MEDOW: Fiction -- We live in a society fueled by speculation and the world of sports is no different. The one thing lacking in this industry is patience. Everyone wants immediate answers. Sports is cyclical. We go through this speculative period every year, and 2019 is no different. How high will the quarterbacks go? Who will trade up for one? Why is this player’s stock rising? Why is no one talking about this player? Tell me where you’ve heard those questions before. The draft may be an inexact science, but the speculation is as predictable as ever.

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