The longest two-week stretch of the year is finally over. With pre-season and training camp finally in the books, we can look ahead to a slate of intriguing games in the NFC East. In New Jersey, the New York Giants hope to avenge their Giants Stadium finale debacle. They want to return the favor against the Carolina Panthers who will open up the New Meadowlands Stadium for its regular season debut.
Kevin Kolb and the new look Philadelphia Eagles open the season in style at the expense of the quarterback optimistic fans have compared Kolb to. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers have been a popular pick to finish the season in the Super Bowl. This makes them a formidable opening day opponent for the Eagles.
But the most enticing match up in the NFC East will be played on Sunday night. Another hot Super Bowl pick, the Dallas Cowboys. venture to Washington to face the Redskins. The game marks both Mike Shanahan's and Donovan McNabb’s capital city debuts. Aside from the painful-to-watch Sunday night meeting in week 16 last season, Cowboys-Redskins games always produce thrilling finishes.
Here is a game-by-game examination for all four NFC East teams.
Panthers vs. Giants New Meadowlands Stadium 1:05
Out of all the teams in the NFC East, the Giants may be playing with the most on the line on Sunday.
Forget that the Giants pride is on the line after closing out Giants Stadium shamefully. Or that they are now in a battle for headlines with the team with which they share their new $1.6 billion stadium. This is an absolutely critical game for the Giants to start the season out right.
First off, they need to put the failures of 2009 to rest. One game won’t erase all of the memories, but it will be a necessary step in the right direction. Last season the Panthers ran the ball down the Giants' throats. Matt Moore had such a clean pocket he could have completed his passes from a lawn chair. Of course these two aspects of the game didn’t exactly distinguish the Panthers from many teams the Giants faced last season. The poor run defense and horrid pass rush were prominent themes in 2009.
Many believe new Defensive Coordinator Perry Fewell and the additions of Keith Bulluck and Antrel Rolle will help. With many players returning from injuries, the Giants defense should play up to the standards the 2007 defense set with its epic playoff run.
But it still has to happen. On paper this unit has the potential to be one of the league’s best. Yet, this exact sentiment was conveyed before the Giants opened up the 2009 season. To win back the trust of the fans, and the players’ confidence, it is imperative Fewell performs to expectations.
If the Panthers once again spoil a Giants' celebration, they will be 0-1 with a tough stretch on the horizon. They travel to Indianapolis for the defending AFC champion’s home opener for a Sunday night Manning v. Manning affair. It’s a winnable, but if they lose to Carolina, it may be a must win. It’s never a good situation to be in a must win with Peyton Manning on the other sideline.
Following Indianapolis, the Giants head home for a game against another AFC South team, the Tennessee Titans. The Giants don'tt want to dig a hole for themselves this early in the season, making the Panthers game that much more crucial.
Eagles vs. Panthers Lambeau Field 4:15
It seems the prospect of a Donovan McNabb trade had been discussed for years. Yet, when it finally happened, it was met with anger and confusion. Not just because McNabb had actually been traded, but because he was traded to a division rival. And a team that brought in a coach that once won back-to-back Super Bowls.
Andy Reid explained during his first press conference following the trade that McNabb’s performance in Washington was not a concern. Their main concern was how Kolb would step in as the Eagles starting quarterback. Clearly they are confident Kolb will mature into a more than adequate starter in the NFL. But with the must-win nature of the league, especially in a championship-starved city like Philadelphia, Kolb’s performance becomes that much more vital.
Kolb will have a chance to transition against defenses that can be had. The Packers defense was tremendous last season. Until December, when they struggled mightily, culminating in allowing 51 points to the Arizona Cardinals in the playoffs.
Expect Kolb to attack the Packers secondary on Sunday. Al Harris suffered a ruptured spleen in pre-season that will keep him out a substantial period of time. Harris’s injury was the point where the Packers defense took a couple of steps back. His return was supposed to rejuvenate the secondary, but instead it depletes a unit that will also be without Nick Collins.
Certainly, if Kolb is well-protected, he has the arm and the weapons to expose the Packers secondary. DeSean Jackson emerged as arguably the top yards after catch receiving threat in the league last year, and Jeremy Maclin possesses similar ability to turn a short pass into a long gain. Additionally, Kolb and tight end Brent Celek made it clear that they already comfortable with each other, giving Kolb a reliable option over the middle of the field.
Given all of the discussion in the off-season about life after McNabb, it will be the defense that plays the most important role on Sunday. Rodgers has asserted himself as a top-notch quarterback, but it’s his ability to neutralize the blitz that could pose the biggest problems to the Eagles. If the Eagles can’t get to him quickly on their blitzes, then there is a very good chance he will shred a suspect Eagles secondary.
Cowboys vs. Redskins Fed Ex Field 8:30
This game could set the tone for each team this season. If the Redskins are able to start off the Shanahan-McNabb era right, they could channel that momentum and really make a strong push to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Conversely, if the Cowboys are able to win, they continue to establish their dominance over Donovan McNabb, in addition to the sheer goodwill that comes from opening up the season in prime time on the road against a fired up division rival.
When the schedule was first announced, predicting this game was a murky proposition. Given all the developments since, it has become even harder to examine how this game will progress.
After McNabb suffered an ankle injury that nearly threatened his ability to play at all on opening night, as well as the Albert Haynesworth saga, the Cowboys looked like a safe bet to start of the season 1-0.
However, Dallas is facing all sorts of troubles. Their starting offense struggled immensely in the pre-season, and now the Cowboys may be missing two of their projected starting five along the offensive line. Given the choice to cut Flozell Adams, the Cowboys could miss up to 60% of their starting offensive line that started 2009.
Albert Haynesworth has been discussed at nauseum this off-season. I hate to provide more fuel for that fire, but his performance on Sunday may be the key for the Redskins to start the season off with a surprising win. Andre Carter is a very good player, but he is not able to take over the game as Haynesworth can against a shaky offensive line.
There were rumors that Haynesworth won’t even play on Sunday, but I do not believe that for one second. He could be limited, but by the second half, Shanahan will have his best players taking every rep possible. Like him or not, Haynesworth is one of their best defensive linemen. He is capable of holding down the Cowboys running game and getting to Romo before he has time to get the ball to his array of weapons.
Giants defeat the Panthers 20-13
The weather may get ugly, and it won’t be pretty, but I think the Giants will be able to get the job done to open up their new stadium. There is too much at stake for the Giants to flatline as they did last season, and the Panthers certainly aren’t going to take them by surprise again.
Eagles defeat the Packers 27-24
Surprising pick here, but I’m not buying into the Packers just yet. I think as the year progresses they will assert themselves as a top-notch team, but early on in the season I like a fired up Eagles team to come into Lambeau and surprise a trendy Super Bowl pick.
Cowboys defeat the Redskins 24-10
I do think this game will be close all the way, but more because the Cowboys are unable to pull away until the middle of the fourth quarter. The Redskins still have a long way to go, and I don’t trust McNabb on a shaky ankle against a team that has provided him with so many horrors over the past few seasons.
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