The NFC East is widely thought of as the toughest division in the NFL right now, and with good reason. In 2008, every team played at least .500 ball. Two teams made the playoffs and a third missed because they lost their QB for three games to an injury. The fourth team had a top five defense. What we have here is a brutally deep division.
As a Giants fan, I am admittedly biased in their favor, but I will say that every team in this division has the ability to go to the playoffs and in the right circumstances win the division. Here is a quick analysis of each team in reverse order of the standings from last year.
The Redskins have a tough hard hitting defense. They have the NFL's best DT in Albert Haynesworth and the best safety tandem in the NFL in Chris Horton and LaRon Landry. They have a promising rookie pass rusher in Brian Orakpo and solid players for all of their starting slots.
It is why they were fourth in yards allowed last year and why they could contend this year. On offense they have three legitimate play makers in Clinton Portis, Chris Cooley, and Sanatana Moss.
So what is not to like? Well, they have the worst offensive line in the division. So, they are very vulnerable to teams with a good pass rush. Jason Campbell has not shown the ability to come up big when the game is on the line.
Thus far in his career, he has been just a game manager type. A team can win that way, but needs a lot more around him. They will be in most games with their defense, but they lack the depth and quality offensive line to win the division.
Never judge a team by its last game. The Cowboys lost their last game 44-6 with the playoffs on the line. They looked like a team that wanted its season to end. Everything changes from one season to the next and this Cowboys team should not be any different.
They led the NFL in sacks. They have an excellent trio of running backs. They have the best TE in the NFC in Jason Witten. Two years ago, they won 13 games. They have the best kicking game in the NFL. The Cowboys are a sleeping giant.
However, they have their weaknesses. First, their secondary is the weakest in the division. The best CB, Terence Newman, is overrated and was hurt last year. Ken Hamelin is just OK at safety.
As such, if you can block Demarcus Ware, you can complete a lot of passes. They have to get pressure from their linebackers, who are all very good because they get very little pressure from the defensive line.
More importantly, the offense is just not as dynamic without Terrell Owens. Roy Williams is a good WR, but he is not as fast as TO. Williams can be guarded by a good CB one on one and every team in this division has at least one good CB.
The real problem with the Cowboys is also why the offense is actually hard to defend: Tony Romo. Romo is a dynamic QB who makes plays that few other QB's can even think about.
However, that same ability to make plays also comes with the price of untimely turnovers. Romo is very similar to a young Brett Favre in this manner. Unless Romo controls his game better, the Cowboys will lose games they should win. Otherwise, Romo will be another stats accumulator.
It is always a danger to judge a team by its last game. The Eagles' defense looked like Swiss cheese against the Cardinals after dominating the Giants the week before. The Eagles' biggest problem might be expectations.
A lot of prognosticators are expecting the Eagles to make a Super Bowl run because of the way they finished the season. Instead, they look like a team that could implode.
The Eagles have the best offense in the division when healthy. Westbrook is the latest version of the Marshall Faulk, Tiki Barber RB that is so tough to defend in open space. However, he does poorly when he gets hit a lot.
The Eagles have wisely decided to upgrade the beef on their offensive line and added a real FB in Leonard Weaver. These improvements should make it easier for Westbrook to get into space where he excels.
DeSean Jackson is fast, talented, and ready to be a star. He might be the best WR the Eagles have drafted since Harold Carmichael. The Eagles will be able to score points.
However, there are warning signs. Shawn Andrews barely played in preseason with a bad back and he has had mental health issues in the past. When he is healthy and focused, he is a pro bowl player.
However, no player is going to be good if his head is focused on other things. Jason Peters is another question mark. Two years ago, he looked like a rising star. Last year, he gave up the most sacks as a left tackle in the NFL.
The real losses though are on defense. The Eagles lost the best defensive coordinator in the NFL to cancer this year. Jim Johnson cannot be replaced. Even though the new DC is a longtime assistant, the coach who follows a coaching genius never looks good in comparison.
It makes the decision to cut Brian Dawkins look even worse. Dawkins could have provided leadership in a transition year. His absence will be felt in the locker room.
On the playing field, the Eagles suffered a huge blow when Stewart Bradley was lost for the year. In 2007, the defense had sprung some leaks. Those leaks were plugged in 2008 and the reason was the upgrade to Bradley from Omar Gaither.
Gaither is a classic backup. He is smart and knows what he should be doing; he just lacks the physical ability to do it consistently. Bradley was a huge improvement and now Gaither is back as the starter. If the Eagles fail to live up to expectations, then look no further than to these three big losses on defense.
New York Giants
The Giants are another popular pick for the Super Bowl. The reason is that the Giants have the best combination of offensive and defensive lines in the NFL.
The Giants offensive line leads the way for the best running game and the defensive line has incredible depth and five different players with a history of getting a big pass rush.
They get Osi Umenyiora back to go along with Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka, Fred Robbins, and Rocky Bernard to give the Giants the deepest and most versatile pass rush in the NFL.
The Giants might even have the best CB in the NFC in Corey Webster. He was second in the NFL in SYPA, which stands for Success percentage X Yards Per Attempt and the best in the NFC. When he is healthy, the Giants have a true lock down CB.
So, what are the Giants weaknesses? The obvious one is that their WR corps has very little experience. They are very fast and gifted physically, but no one really knows how they will hold up over the course of the year. Eli Manning needs to be able to trust them and that will take time.
Plus, the defense suffered a lot of nagging injuries in the preseason. Chris Canty suffered a hamstring tear and is questionable for week one. Rocky Bernard had a hamstring injury.
Michael Boley, their big free agent LB signing needed offseason hip surgery. Aaron Ross, the other starting CB, has a badly pulled hamstring and will probably miss the opener.
Jay Alford tore a ligament in his knee and might be lost for the year. Antonio Pierce missed a couple of preseason games with a foot injury. The good news for Giants fans is that all of these injuries appear to be almost healed (with the exception of Alford). However, nagging injuries can affect timing and cohesion.
So, how will the division play out? My heart says the Giants, but my head tells me that the division will end up like this:
Only the Redskins will fail to make the playoffs.