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Ezekiel Elliott suspension opens door for Eagles in NFC East

Change has been a constant atop the NFC East for more than a decade. Given the recent developments surrounding Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, that trend could continue in 2017.

No team has repeated as division champions since the Philadelphia Eagles rattled off four in a row from 2001 to '04. The Cowboys were in good position to change that. Coming off a 13-3 campaign and armed with a top offensive line, one of the league's best running backs and a promising young quarterback in Dak Prescott, Dallas was the clear favorite to repeat.

Things are decidedly less clear following the league's announcement that Elliott is facing a six-game suspension for violating the personal-conduct policy. Without an appeal, Elliott's suspension would begin Sept. 2. His first potential game action wouldn't come until Week 8 at the Washington Redskins. That would be close to 40 percent of the season that Prescott & Co. would be without Elliott's services.

Elliott led the league in rushing attempts (322) and yards (1,631) as a rookie in 2016. Averaging 5.1 yards per carry, he kept the Cowboys out of third-and-longs and forced opposing defenses to play honest. That made life much easier for Prescott as he navigated his way through his first season in the pros.

Now the onus is on the likes of Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris and Rod Smith to keep the Dallas ground game moving at a good clip. If they can't, the entire operation -- from Prescott to Rod Marinelli's defense -- will feel an increased burden.

One team's loss is another's gain. Elliott's absence could very well affect Dallas' win total, giving the rest of the division -- including the Eagles -- a chance to unseat the Cowboys as NFC East champs.

Quarterback Carson Wentz has a much better shot of going toe-to-toe with Prescott in Year 2. Working without right tackle Lane Johnson for 10 games because of suspension and surrounded by a wide receiver group that finished 31st in the NFL in receiving yards, Wentz labored for much of the season. He now has Johnson back in the fold and is surrounded by an improved group of skill-position players that includes receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith and running back LeGarrette Blount.

The biggest deficiency on this Eagles team is at cornerback, but executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman addressed the position Friday when he acquired Ronald Darby from the Buffalo Bills for receiver Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick. That should give Philadelphia more of a fighting chance against the likes of divisional wideouts Dez Bryant, Odell Beckham Jr. and Terrelle Pryor Sr.

Some vulnerabilities remain, but that does not make the Eagles unique in the NFC East, or in the NFL for that matter. If Wentz can take the type of step forward that many on the inside are anticipating; if Jeffery can stay healthy and is dialed in; and if the defense can get its footing in Year 2 under coordinator Jim Schwartz, there is no reason why they can't be in the thick of the divisional race. That is particularly true now that the Cowboys look as though they might come back to the pack.