Ah, the NFC.
Sure, the AFC might have the most recognizable teams and faces in the modern NFL. Brady, Peyton Manning, LT, and Vince Young all call the American Football Conference home. But there is one thing the NFC has that the AFC doesn't.
The AFC South is considered by many to be the most stacked division in the NFL. But what about the other three divisions?
The AFC East will easily be the Patriots until the end of the Brady era. It would be a shock not to see the Chargers do anything but clean up in the AFC West. What about the AFC North? The Steelers/Browns race will be worth watching, but that’s about it.
Compare those divisions to the jewel of the Nation Football Conference: the NFC East. Where else can you find four playoff-caliber teams in one division? Over the past four seasons, the Giants, Cowboys, and Eagles have each captured the division crown.
With that, here are my fearless predictions for the "beasts in the East."
If the Cowboys don't scare you to win the entire NFC, you haven't been paying attention.
The Cowboys were an elite team in 2007, regardless of conference. Their points scored ranked third behind the Packers and the mighty 18-1 Patriots.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys defense may be one of the better units in the NFC. Led by safety Roy Williams, the Cowboys ranked ninth in total defense in the league last season, and fourth in the NFC. The addition of Jenkins and cornerback/return specialist Adam 'Pacman' Jones should help improve an aging secondary.
With two first-round picks in the 2008 Draft, the Cowboys were able to address two needs. First, Arkansas running back Felix Jones will combine with Marion Barber to create a potent one-two punch for the team's ground game. Secondly, USF's Mike Jenkins will help shore up a secondary that ranked 13th against the pass in 2007.
Really, the Cowboys are a team with very few holes. Tony Romo is a Pro Bowl quarterback, and mercurial receiver Terrell Owens, who signed a three-year contract extension earlier in the week, had a great season in 2007, racking up 1,355 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Still, the team has not been able to get over the playoff hump since Troy Aikman was the team's signal caller.
If the Cowboys want any chance of winning their first playoff game in a decade, quarterback Tony Romo is going to have to be the one to get the 'Boys there. Romo is 0-2 in the playoffs, with nearly two years of starting experience under his belt.
How the Cowboys bounce back from a disappointing finish to their 2007 campaign will be worth watching. Tony Romo turned heads last month when he tried to qualify for the U.S. Open. When he did not qualify, he said, "I played nine holes last week, and tried to get in game shape, but obviously that wasn't enough it comes and goes."
The Cowboys have nearly all the pieces in place for a real Super Bowl run in 2008. If they can repeat their success from last season, a division win and a first-round bye are easily obtainable.
Patrick's Fearless Prediction: 12-4, first in the NFC East
The offseason has been an unusual one for the Eagles. At season's end, McNabb wrote an article for YardBarker.com, saying, "Now that the season is over and we are concentrating on 2008, I hope we are able to secure some playmakers in all three phases of the game."
Many on the team echoed his sentiments, including running back Brian Westbrook and safety Brian Dawkins.
After signing free agent cornerback Asante Samuel in the wee hours of free agency, head coach Andy Reid and company also attempted to add a veteran receiver to the team. In fact, the Eagles very nearly wooed Randy Moss away from Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
When Plan A failed, the team attempted to trade for the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, the Lions' Roy Williams, and the Bengals' Chad Johnson. None panned out, so the Eagles resorted to the draft.
Cal's explosive DeSean Jackson will help to improve a lousy special-teams unit that was one of the worst in the league in 2007. Asante Samuel should help the Eagles force turnovers in 2008.
The Eagles ranked dead last in interceptions last season with 11. Samuel had six by himself in 2007.
The Eagles finished with a disappointing 8-8 mark last season, last in the NFC East. They were also the only team from the division not to make the playoffs.
The Philly faithful have been tortured as of late. Since the team's Super run in 2004, the Birds have missed the playoffs twice. In 2006, the team made it to the playoffs with the help of journeyman quarterback Jeff Garcia and the running game of Westbrook.
In order for the Eagles to make the playoffs in 2008, the offense has to get over its red-zone slump. Having McNabb all the way back from knee surgery will help, as well as having franchise tight end L.J. Smith back.
The defense is young and fast, and with coordinator Jim Johnson's rotation of linemen, the defense should improve beyond its top-10 standing in the NFL from last season.
As always, the Eagles' season will rest on the shoulders of McNabb. If he can stay healthy and play consistently, the Eagles should be able to make the playoffs. If not, the Eagles might be glad they have two first-round picks for next year's draft.
Patrick's Fearless Prediction: 10-6, second in the NFC East
New York Giants
Let's take a moment to reflect on the Giants' Super run of 2007.
The Giants suffered through a tumultuous 2006 campaign in which the team's franchise running back retired, and the locker room nearly fell apart en route to an 8-8 finish.
Few thought the Giants would be able to stay together as a team in 2007, let alone win enough games to make the playoffs.
A Super Bowl win? Forget it.
Now, 2006 seems like a lifetime ago. Head coach Tom Coughlin, who was thought to be out the door at the end of 2006, has a new, long-term contract. Heavily criticized quarterback Eli Manning now claims the title of Super Bowl XLII MVP.
A lot can change in a year.
What remains to be seen is what the team will do for an encore. Expectations will be higher than ever in New York. After an emotional playoff ride, will the Giants suffer the Super Bowl hangover, much like the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers?
The Giants will not have an easy road, playing in the hyper-competitive NFC East. However, the most difficult non-conference team Big Blue has to play will likely either be Pittsburgh or Cleveland. Not bad.
Another key to the Giants' success in 2008 will be how the team plays after losing key starters. After losing safety Gibril Wilson to the Raiders, the team drafted Miami's Kenny Philips as a replacement.
Add to that the fact that for a second straight year, future Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan is considering retirement. With a ring on his finger, he may be less inclined to return.
The offense will need to continue the success it had in the postseason if they hope to compete in 2008. The running-back committee led by Brandon Jacobs was a formidable threat in the postseason, rushing for 405 yards.
Eli Manning turned it on in the playoffs, completing 72 of 119 passes for six touchdowns and one interception. Still, questions will linger about whether he can continue his success.
In the end, the Giants have as good a shot as any team in the NFC in 2008. Whether they can go deep into the playoffs remains to be seen, but the boys in blue now know what it takes to go all the way.
Patrick's Fearless Prediction: 9-7, third in the NFC East
The Redskins are the wild card in the East.
The 'Skins have a new head coach in Jim Zorn, as well as a new offensive and defensive coordinator. Many will argue that it is a similar situation to the Chargers of last year, and that it shouldn't hinder the team's success for 2008.
Then again, the Redskins aren't the Chargers. Not even close.
That isn't to say it's all doom and gloom in our nation's capital. New head coach Zorn, who was previously the quarterback coach in Seattle, should do a fine job helping quarterback Jason Campbell improve his game.
In 13 games, Campbell threw 12 touchdowns to 11 picks before going down. In his place, veteran quarterback Todd Collins led the team to the playoffs. Collins' five touchdowns and zero interceptions made many fans call for him to be the starter for 2008.
Something will have to happen at the quarterback position for the team to be successful next season. The Redskins were mediocre on offense in 2008, ranking 15th in total offense.
To fit his new West Coast Offense, Zorn made the controversial decision to trade out of the first round, and draft two wide receivers and a tight end in the second round.
The Redskins should have their receiving corps of the future, but the team's defense was largely ignored. Still, the Washington defense ranked eighth overall, one above Dallas and two above Philly.
For the Redskins, the team's success, like most teams, will fall on the shoulders of Jason Campbell. His progression must be Eli Manning-like in order for the team to do any kind of damage in the playoffs—assuming they can get that far.
In any other division in the NFC, the Redskins would be a lock for the playoffs. In the East, it remains to be seen. Of all the teams, though, their outlook is the bleakest.
Patrick's Fearless Prediction: 9-7, fourth in the NFC East