Still Beastly: Divisional Rivals Remain Blue's Biggest Obstacle

Max WillensCorrespondent IMay 14, 2009

IRVING, TX - OCTOBER 05:  Tackle Jay Ratliff #90 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates a defensive tackle against Cedric Benson #32 of the Cincinnati Bengals at Texas Stadium on October 5, 2008 in Irving, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

As much hay as pundits and fretful fans want to make of the Giants' offseason moves—releasing Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer, letting Derrick Ward leave, and failing (thus far) to trade for Braylon Edwards or Anquan Boldin—the number one hurdle the team faces in 2009 doesn't exist on their roster; it resides in their back yard.

The New York Giants play in the toughest division in football, and with all due respect to the NFL's southern divisions, the fight for the NFC East is going to be the biggest, baddest, nastiest cage match of the season.

The numbers back it up:

All four teams finished the 2008 season ranked in the top 10 in total defense.

The Cowboys and the Eagles boasted top 10 passing attacks.

The Giants and the Redskins each featured top 10 ground games.

The Giants and the Eagles were among the top 10 teams in scoring.

The facts and figures go on and on, but there's no sense in belaboring the point. Even the NFL's scheduling department is in on the secret; NFC East teams are involved in more prime-time games this year than any other. Half of the NFC East's divisional battles will be nationally televised.

That's scary enough as it is, but when you remember that all four teams spent the offseason getting better, with the Redskins putting a $100 million mountain (Albert Haynesworth) in the middle of their defensive line, the Eagles securing Donovan McNabb's blind side with Jason Peters, and the Cowboys finally getting rid of Terrell Owens, the Giants' task of defending their NFC East title seems almost impossible.

But before you prematurely hold a funeral for the Giants' 2009 season, let's take a quick look at the chinks in each rival team's armor. They might seem small, but the Giants spent most of 2008 proving they could power their way through even the tiniest of cracks, and there are plenty of things to exploit in each opponent.

First, there's the Redskins. Daniel Snyder made one historic investment in his defensive line, but he's going to wish he'd spent that money on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

While the Redskins did sign a capable guard, Derrick Dockery, in the offseason, he will not be able to disguise the fact that the 'Skins line is old and fragile. Both of their tackles are recovering from serious offseason surgeries, and behind them on the depth chart are Devin Clark, an undrafted 22-year-old who has never played an NFL snap, and Stephon Heyer, a career backup who got pushed around like a blocking sled last season as a right tackle.

Clinton Portis is less than thrilled about all this, but Jason Campbell is probably fuming. After the Redskins' very public pursuit of Jay Cutler ended in early April, Snyder turned right around and drafted Chase Daniel three weeks later.

Campbell's too classy (and too smart) to openly revolt against his situation, but it seems like Snyder is already preparing to get rid of him.

And while we're on the subject of meddling, publicity-obsessed owners, we may as well tackle Dallas.

In spite of all the upbeat talk about how successful the Terrell Owens-ectomy was, there's no escaping the fact that this team's dysfunctions run deep.

From Tony Romo throwing Jason Garrett under the bus to their spectacularly embarrassing 44-6 season-ending surrender to the Philadelphia Eagles—the Cowboys are not well-equipped to deal with adversity.

It doesn't help that their secondary is in shambles (Anthony Henry traded, Roy Williams and Pacman Jones released), but the Cowboys' biggest problem might be their schedule.

Its back stretch is murderous;  three of their final five games are on the road, and their home opponents, the Chargers and the Eagles, will be very unpleasant guests. If just a couple of things go wrong, the Cowboys could very well take themselves out of the running by Christmas.

Unlike Washington and Dallas, Philadelphia will give New York a serious run for its money this season. They ended the Giants' season last year, and there are plenty of people who think that the Eagles might even be the team to beat in the NFC East this year. They have a capable defense and an improving offense.

Yet for all the media gushing over the Eagles' very young, very promising wide receivers, this Eagles squad faces a unique set of problems.

Like the Cowboys, the Eagles are under a great deal of pressure, but it's of a very different kind; Philadelphia's nucleus is running out of time. Brian Westbrook, who turns 30 this year, is a free agent at the end of the 2010 season, and Donovan McNabb is seemingly going to be cut or traded at the end of every year.

The team also shocked its fan base by releasing Brian Dawkins, a Hall of Fame-caliber player who probably had another good year left in his legs. He was the soul of the team, the player that stood by McNabb after his benching last season, and a key reason the Eagles got that second wind last year.

Add the release of Greg Lewis, the possible releases of Kevin Curtis and Jon Runyan, and the questions about Jim Johnson's health, and what's left is a team that may be faced with its last chance to compete in the NFL's most beastly division.