Many sports fans think of the summer months as the deadest period of the year, but for football junkies like me, this is a very exciting time, full of optimism and possibility. Most NFL training camps have either already begun, or will begin in a day or two. And until the NFL season kicks off September, our favorite teams are undefeated.
This is also the time when folks like me peruse the regular-season schedules, go over the offseason trades, and make predictions about the upcoming season. The first regular-season kickoff is still more than a month away, but as a wiser man than I once said, "It’s never too early to be inaccurate."
With that in mind, I’ll begin my series of predictions with the NFC East. I’m starting with this division for two reasons: First, as a Giants fan, I’m an NFC East homer; and second, all four teams have relatively stable quarterback-situations, and therefore are not currently being held hostage by the Brett Favre debacle.
Painful as this is for me to admit, the Cowboys were the best team in the NFC last year, and they haven’t incurred any significant personnel losses in the offseason. Tony Romo, Marion Barber, and Terrell Owens anchor one of the league’s best offenses. A young, pesky defense has added Zach Thomas and Pacman—oops!—Adam Jones.
Circle this date: Nov. 2, Cowboys at Giants. The ‘Boys will be looking to avenge their playoff loss to the Giants.
Outlook: The regular season hasn’t been a problem for Dallas in recent years. It’s those damn playoffs that keep tripping them up. I expect this to be the year they get off the schneid, not because they’re significantly better than last year, but more because of the law of averages. Sooner of later, this team has to win a playoff game. They’re too good not to.
Projected finish: 12-4
Donovan McNabb's championship window is closing rapidly; in fact, it is very nearly shut. He turns 32 this year, and he hasn’t had an injury-free season since 2004. The Eagles’ fortunes ride heavily on whether No. 5 can keep it together for a full year.
Brian Westbrook is unhappy with his contract situation, and he’s 28 and rapidly approaching 30, the not-so-magic number for running backs. Still, this is a team that is built to win now, and it was the Eagles’ defense that wrote the blueprint on how to contain New England’s juggernaut of an offense.
Circle this date: Dec. 28, at home vs. Dallas. With a little luck, the Eagles could be playing this game for the top spot in the NFC East.
Outlook: This season hinges on a lot of ifs. If McNabb can stay healthy. If Westbrook can repeat last year’s performance. If Andy Reid can concentrate on the season despite his sons’ troubles. I have the feeling this is now or never for these Eagles, and that they will play like it.
Projected finish: 11-5
New York Giants
I may get slammed for predicting a third-place finish for the defending champs, and as a Giants fan, I may seem egregiously disloyal, but I still think Eli Manning has some growing to do. Entering the regular-season finale against the Patriots, he was the very definition of mediocrity, with 19 touchdown passes and 19 picks. Has a Super Bowl victory transformed him into a more accurate quarterback? We’ll see.
Circle this date: Sept. 4, at home vs. Washington. A Thursday-night game, it’s the first game of the season, and the Giants will be looking to prove they’re no fluke.
Outlook: I hope I’m wrong, but I see a little Super Bowl hangover for the Giants. Also, Michael Strahan (retirement) and Kawika Mitchell (free agency) are significant defensive losses.
Projected finish: 10-6.
This is a team in flux. New head coach Jim Zorn takes over a team still reeling from the shooting death of safety Sean Taylor. Quarterback Jason Campbell is learning a new offense for the third time in four years.
Circle this date: Nov. 16, at home vs. Dallas. Regardless of how the Redskins may be playing, they always get up for the Cowboys. They’ll be hovering around .500 and playing with desperation. Will it be enough to beat the Cowboys? Tune in and find out.
Outlook: After years of trying to buy a championship, Daniel Snyder appears to be trying to build through the draft. If successful, the ‘Skins will be tough. But not this year.
Projected finish: 8-8.