The NFC East has been widely considered the best division in football from top to bottom for the past several seasons. Over the last three years, the four teams in the division have had a combined eight playoff berths, with three teams qualifying in 2006 and 2007.
And get this—both the Cowboys and the Giants were upset as No. 1 seeds in the playoffs...by teams in their own division. Eli Manning and company upset the Cowboys in 2007 en route to their historic Super Bowl run, and then last season those same Giants (minus Plaxico Burress) were upset by the Eagles.
As a whole, this is by far the best division in football, with the NFC South coming in second.
Interestingly enough, these two divisions will play against each other this season—and that makes for a lot of intriguing match-ups.
It also means that the Eagles will be going through a brutal schedule. The divisional play alone will result in six tough games.
As of right now, the Eagles are considered by many to be a Super Bowl favorite after their brilliant off season moves. But in order to make it to the playoffs, they will have to make it through their own division first.
Lets take a look at all four teams, starting first with the Giants:
New York Giants
The Giants made a lot of noise last year in the regular season with their unstoppable running game. Their offensive line was highly regarded and considered the best in the league, and they paved the way for two-1,000 yard rushers in Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward. Ahmad Bradshaw also contributed as a big-play threat.
Besides the offensive line and fullback Madison Hedgecock all playing at a high level, what really allowed the Giants running game to excel was the presence of Burress.
He was not having the typical Burress-like season, but he was still the x-factor on offense for the Giants because he drew a safety over the top. This prevented teams from using eight-man fronts against the Giants.
And no defense could stop the Giants run game without putting eight in the box.
Everyone knows what happened with Burress—he shot himself in the leg, which ended the Giants' hope for a repeat. Teams could now stack the box because the Giants had no other threats on the outside.
This lead to the Giants losing four of the last five games—including the loss at home to Philadelphia in the playoffs.
Without a receiving threat, Manning struggled, and the Giants were not the same team. Manning did not even throw a single touchdown to a wide receiver in the last five games.
The Giants No. 2 priority coming into the off season (after releasing Burress) was to find a new target for Eli, as they were desperately lacking talent on the outside.
They were rumored to be in trade talks for Braylon Edwards and Anquan Boldin, but ultimately used the draft to acquire weapons for Manning.
In the first round, they drafted Hakeem Nicks and in the third they took Ramses Barden. Both are promising young receivers, though Nicks is expected to contribute more right away.
Other than that, the Giants are returning almost everyone on offense from the team that went 12-4 one year ago.
Ward signed with Tampa Bay, but Bradshaw will account for his absence. He filled in while Ward was injured and played spectacular football during the Super Bowl run two seasons ago.
The Giants offense has talent, but if Nicks can't step up, then they might be in serious trouble.
The Giants are loaded on defense. Steve Spagnuolo is gone, but Bill Sheridan is looking to continue the same aggressive scheme that Spagnuolo brought from Philadelphia.
The biggest addition to the Giants' defense is getting Osi Umenyiora back healthy. He is one of the best defensive ends in the league, and he gives the Giants the best and deepest defensive line in the NFL.
They go eight deep, along with a very good linebacking corps (Michael Boley definitely adds something to the mix) and a solid secondary. There are no holes on the Giants defense.
Predicted Finish: 11-5, second in the NFC East
Terrell Owens is gone, and Roy Williams is the new No. 1 guy.
Getting rid of T.O. should fix the Cowboys problems on offense. He wasn't necessarily causing controversies like he was in Philadelphia and San Francisco. Actually, his past history just made him a victim and an easy target for the story hunters at ESPN (anybody else notice how Ed Werder always had a breaking news story on his hands?)
He did complain about not getting the ball enough, but those comments were said in frustration after a loss. Other than that, all of the other stories about Owens fighting with tight end Jason Witten and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett were all speculation.
Owens was hurting the Cowboys on the field, however. Romo was forcing him the ball—perhaps in response to those comments. For the year, Owens was targeted 143 times, but only had 69 catches. That means he caught less than half the balls thrown his way.
All of those forced passes—some thrown over the head of Owens while he was being doubled—probably cost the Cowboys the playoffs last year.
With Owens now gone, the Cowboys are hoping for a classic "addition by subtraction" improvement in the offense. The Giants have been excellent at this, as they rid themselves of selfish "me first" guys like Jeremy Shockey and Tiki Barber and then won a Super Bowl as a team.
And the Cowboys still have plenty of weapons. Roy Williams can be that No. 1 receiver, while Patrick Crayton is a good No. 2 option and excels in the slot. Witten is also the best tight end in the league, and they have a three-headed monster at running back with Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice.
Getting Jones back healthy will instantly upgrade the offense. He will improve the running game, as well as adding consistency and a big-play threat that can bounce it outside and take it to the house.
That ultimately means fewer forced balls down the field from Romo, which will result in fewer turnovers.
Despite all the stars the Cowboys have on defense, there are still quite a few holes.
DeMarcus Ware is one of the best linebackers in the league, and Bradie James is pretty good, too. But Greg Ellis is now another year older, and Anthony Spencer is not living up to his potential as a former first-round pick.
The Keith Brooking signing also makes little sense....he's on the verge of retiring and has lost a lot of ability. Didn't Jerry Jones learn anything last year about signing older linebackers? Does Zach Thomas not ring a bell?
Dallas could be in line for some serious problems at linebacker, and that could doom their season.
Their secondary is also shallow in depth, and they need their starters to play well. Losing Adam "Pacman" Jones gets rid of an attitude, but also kills the talent level. Terrence Newman has to stay healthy, and former first-round pick Mike Jenkins has to step up and play.
Roy Williams (safety) was cut, and that definitely hurts the run defense. But Gerald Sensabaugh was signed from the Jaguars to take his place, and he had a pretty good season last year.
He stood out on a bad defense and made 70 tackles. He's got a great eye for the ball, and is an upgrade over Williams in pass coverage, where Roy was often criticized.
The Cowboys need their defense to play well, especially their younger players. If that happens, then they will make noise in the NFC East.
Predicted Finish: 10-6, third in NFC East
But problems along the offensive line—age, injuries, and at times poor play—caused the offense to sputter at midseason, and the Redskins finished just 8-8, despite being an early Super Bowl contender.
The offensive line remains the Redskins' main issue. Pro Bowl tackle Chris Samuels and long time guard Randy Thomas are both coming off of major surgery, and both are another year older this year. There is little depth behind those two, especially Samuels.
The guy they make holes for, Clinton Portis, is only 28, but he could be seeing his career coming to an end very soon. He has already totaled 2,052 carries, and has endured a lot of wear and tear throughout his seven-year career.
He may have a few productive seasons left under his belt, but his production should drop dramatically by the time he reaches 30.
This year, he will have to stay healthy—something that will be hard to do if he is given more than 300 carries again (342 last year). He has been amassed more than 300 carries four times in his career, but head coach Jim Zorn may want to keep Portis fresh by giving carries to Ladell Betts to avoid another late-season collapse by the Redskins.
If that happens, Portis should have another great year. And Portis makes the 'Skins offense go.
Chris Cooley is a very good tight end, and Santana Moss is a great deep threat for Campbell. But Antwaan Randle El is not good enough to be a number two receiver. The former college quarterback is useful in gimmick plays, but he is not capable of pulling coverage away from Moss.
The Redskins need one of their two second-round picks from last year to elevate their play. Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly were not factors last year, and if they don't improve this year, then that will be bad news for the Redskins.
Campbell is in a contract year, and it's now or never for the often-criticized quarterback.
The Redskins defense was their strength last year, as they ranked fifth overall. They also signed Albert Haynesworth to a monster deal in the off season, and they drafted defensive end Brian Orakpo out of Texas with their first pick in the draft.
Assuming Orakpo gets playing time, and Haynesworth dominates like he should, then the Redskins defense should be even better this year.
They are star laden with talent—Carlos Rodgers, LaRon Landry, DeAngelo Hall, Haynesworth, and London Fletcher make up the core.
Andre Carter and Phillip Daniels are also decent defensive ends, and Orakpo figures to factor into that group as well (though it has been rumored the Redskins may try to move him to outside linebacker).
The Redskins' defense gives them a chance in the NFC East, but on this list, they finish at the bottom of the bunch.
Predicted Finish: 9-7, fourth in the NFC East.
Now it's time to analyze how the Eagles stack up in this tough division.
The Eagles ended up having a top-10 offense last season. But their offensive inconsistencies—especially in the red zone and in short-yardage situations—lead them to a disappointing 9-6-1 record that barely made the playoffs.
Many fans clamored for head coach Andy Reid's firing, and for the Eagles to go out and attain a No. 1 receiver like Anquan Boldin.
Reid definitely had his fair share of play-calling blunders last year, and a receiver like Boldin would improve the Birds' offense. But those two issues were not the main problem.
The Eagles main problem lay in the fact that they were completely one-dimensional.
It's not that Reid didn't call enough running plays. Because he didn't. The Eagles just flat-out could not run the ball at all, and this caused an embarrassment in short-yardage situations.
Brian Westbrook had nagging injuries all year long to his ankle, ribs, back, and knee. He has always been injury-prone, as he has never played in a full 16-game season.
But last year, all of his injuries can be attributed to the blocking in front of him. Offensive tackles Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas were both in their mid-30s, and they could not create holes like they used to.
They were still great in pass protection, because pass protection relies more heavily on technique. Their run blocking was just no longer up to par, especially against athletic defensive ends, and that's why neither of them will be back next year.
All-Pro right guard Shawn Andrews also hurt his back in the second game and missed the rest of the season, and this killed the Eagles' interior running game.
Add to the fact that Dan Klecko, a converted defensive tackle, was playing fullback, and that tight ends L.J. Smith and Brent Celek weren't great blockers, either, and it's easy to see why the Eagles could not run the ball.
All of these problems have been addressed this off season. Smith, Thomas, and Runyan are no longer on the team. They have been replaced with Stacey Andrews, Jason Peters, and Cornelius Ingram.
These three are huge upgrades. Stacey Andrews figures to move to right guard in order to allow Shawn Andrews to play right tackle, where he was a star in college.
Peters puts the Eagles' offensive line over the Giants as the best in the NFL. Some mock the 11.5 sacks he gave up last year, but that was due in large part to his contract holdout. He missed all of training camp, and didn't report until right before the regular season.
Peters is a monster, and is so dominant in the trenches that Reid called him the best left tackle in the NFL. Eagles line coach Juan Castillo is one of the NFL's finest, and he should help keep Jason's head screwed on straight.
The Eagles also signed Leonard Weaver to a one-year contract. Weaver is one of the best fullbacks in the NFL, and is an enormous upgrade over Klecko
Weaver can do it all—block, run, catch passes—and he has a nasty stiff-arm. Need proof? Look here.
(Do not mess with Leonard Weaver)
All things considered, Westbrook should be in line for a great season next year, and is likely to be an MVP candidate.
McNabb now has plenty of weapons, along with a great group of receivers. DeSean Jackson is a star in the making, Kevin Curtis is more than capable of a 1,000-yard season, and Jeremy Maclin is very explosive and figures to fit in somewhere along the line.
Look for the Eagles' offense to fly high in '09
The Eagles had the third-best overall defense last season, and they are only going to get better. They have depth and youth everywhere- along with a star studded secondary and a deep defensive line rotation.
They lost a lot of leadership with the departure of Brian Dawkins to Denver, but there are other player ready to step up. Stewart Bradley is the most likely candidate to assume the leadership role on defense.
The signing of Sean Jones is an interesting one. Despite a down year last season, he is still considered to be one of the top safeties in the NFL. But it is unknown how he fits in right now on the Eagles.
Dawkins was a free safety, and he could very well be the replacement to Brian. But Sean Jones played strong safety in Cleveland, and Quintin Demps is currently penciled in as the starter at free safety.
If Jones stays at strong safety, he will have to compete with Quintin Mikell, who has been the best player on the Eagles defense for the past two seasons. Mikell shoudln't lose his starting spot, even if he has to compete with Jones.
Whoever starts between Mikell, Jones, and Demps, the Eagles should have the best secondary in the league. Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown give Philadelphia a great cornerback duo. Brown is currently upset with his contract, but he is expected to report to training camp.
The linebacking corps is now strong, with Bradley a likely candidate to end up in Hawaii. Chris Gocong and Akeem Jordan look to continue their improved play, and Omar Gaither will try to compete with Jordan to retain his starting spot that he lost at Baltimore. Most teams don't have a guy like Gaither on the bench, and he will be valuable in case of injuries, as he can play both middle and outside linebacker.
Three of the front four starters are already set, with Brodrick Bunkley, Mike Patterson, and Trent Cole all being Pro Bowl-caliber players. Victor Abiamiri will compete with Juqua Parker for the starting spot at left defensive end, with the coaches expecting Abiamiri to win the job.
Depth on the defensive line gives coordinator Jim Johnson flexibility, as he likes to rotate his lineman and keep them fresh. Chris Clemons really came on at the end of last year and figures to work into the rotation more.
Second-year man Trevor Laws also wants to contribute more as the third defensive tackle behind Patterson and Bunkley. Darren Howard is now 33, but he lead the team in sacks last year with 10.
When all is said and done, the Eagles, along with the Giants, have the potential to boost the top defense next season.
Predicted Finish: 12-4, first in the NFC East
Positional Ranks by team
These are the positional ranks of the four teams in the NFC East.
*Note: This is assuming that all players play injury-free and up to their potential, and it takes into account starters and bench players (with the exception of quarterback)
3) New York
3) New York
Wide Receiver (wide receivers only)
4) New York
4) New York
1) New York
2) New York
1) New York
1) Tie between New York and Philadelphia
4) New York
The Eagles will have a tough time in this division. They will have to finish at least 3-3 or 4-2 in divisional play in order to have a chance at winning the division. Their division record was 2-4 last season, and that will not cut it this time around.
As with any other year, if McNabb and Westbrook stay healthy, then the playoffs should be a given.
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