The NFC East loves to beat on itself. Each fan base has a rivalry that spills directly from what the teams leave on the field for them to feed off of. All of this is for good reason as well, as competition stays at a premium here. No team has repeated as division champion since the Eagles in 2004; and for anyone handing them the division this year, pay close attention to this fact.
A year ago, the return to prominence of Michael Vick took the NFL by storm. He was the final piece needed to push the Eagles back to the top of a division they have won more times in the last ten years than any other club. However, does it carry over again as seamlessly? The Cowboys offense woke up late last season, and the return of Tony Romo will put them in position to take a shot back at the top of a division they won just two years ago. The Giants are always in the mix, and despite a rash of injuries, still are arguably the most balanced team of the four. The Redskins are rebuilding, but offer the potential of an upset towards any of the division’s more celebrated squads.
As said last year in this same column, the NFC East will be the traditional battlefield it always has been.
QB: Michael Vick RB: Ahmad Bradshaw, LeSean McCoy FB: Leonard Weaver WR: Miles Austin, DeSean Jackson, Hakeem Nicks TE: Jason Witten OT: Jason Peters, Doug Free OG: Chris Snee, Todd Herremans C: Jamaal Jackson
DE: Justin Tuck, Trent Cole DT: Jay Ratliff, Mike Patterson OLB: DeMarcus Ware, Brian Orakpo MLB: London Fletcher, Bradie James CB: Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel S: LaRon Landry, OJ Atogwe
K: Lawrence Tynes P: Mat McBriar Returner: DeSean Jackson
DALLAS COWBOYS (6-10 in 2010)
Offense: T. Romo-QB, M. Austin-WR, J. Witten-TE, D. Bryant-WR (B+)
Defense: D. Ware-OLB, J. Ratliff-NT, T. Newman-CB, G. Sensabaugh-S (C+)
The Good: For all that is said about the offense stalling out, it played better once Jason Garrett took control of the team last season. Also, it will get a boost with the return of Tony Romo, a healthy and more experienced Dez Bryant and using more of Felix Jones. The biggest difference here could be Rob Ryan taking over as Defensive Coordinator. His aggressive scheme should help a Dallas defense that had coverage like a broken dam downfield, while put for too little pressure on the quarterback outside of DeMarcus Ware.
The Bad: The offensive line is rebuilt, but still has a long way to go. Tyron Smith will take his lumps as the youngest player in the league while starting at right tackle. Add to that that they will be breaking in four new starters in front of Romo, and it could be a repeat of last year’s poor unit that gave up 30 sacks a year ago and could not field a 1000 yard rusher either.
X-Factor-Felix Jones: Jones is a definite candidate for biggest breakout player this fall. He could be called on more in the receiving game than any other running back in the league, especially if the line doesn’t hold up well. He’ll have the advantage of having his great speed to hit defenses that are busy guarding the multiple Cowboy receiving threats off guard quickly.
Fearless Prediction: @NYJ (L), @SF (W), WSH (W), DET (L), @NE (L), STL (W), @PHI (L), SEA (W), BUF (W), @WSH (L), MIA (W), @ARI (W), NYG (L), @TB (L), PHI (W), @NYG
In The End: They’ll be better if they stay healthy, and that’s a big if. Miles Austin is hurting already and Romo has to stay upright for them to be much better at all. A mixture of a revived defensive approach, along with a more steady offense will make them better, but they still aren’t tough enough up front to push into the playoffs this year. Record: 9-7
NEW YORK GIANTS (10-6 in 2010)
Offense: E. Manning-QB, A. Bradshaw-RB, H. Nicks-WR, M. Manningham-WR (B+)
Defense: J. Tuck-DE, O. Umenyiora-DE, A. Rolle-S, C. Webster-CB (B-)
The Good: They can move the ball downfield. Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham are one of the more underrated receiving tandems in the game, despite combining for 1,996 yards and 20 TD in 2010. Eli Manning is far from the “elite” passer he fashioned himself as, but gets it done more often than he doesn’t. Ahmad Bradshaw’s breakout last season gave them the Tiki Barber like dual threat they had been lacking for years, and the Bradshaw-Jacobs backfield is capable of giving defenses multiple types of headaches being deployed together.
The Bad: They didn’t get much better at any critical area, and now they could be paying for it. The offensive line was already a problem, and now with the departure of Steve Smith and Kevin Boss, there is less talent for Eli to have bail out the rushed throws that will be even more common now. The defense was in position bail them out, but a plague of injury swept over that unit, claiming Osi Umenyiora, Terrell Thomas and first round pick Prince Amukamara.
X-Factor-Jason Pierre-Paul: Placed in the middle of a deep defensive end rotation, the team’s 2010 first rounder had to make the best of his limited opportunities last season. He still managed 4.5 sacks, and with Umenyiora out for the beginning of the season, he will have an opportunity to be a priority for the first time. Even after Osi returns, he will have a chance to be one of the best third ends in the league.
Fearless Prediction: @WSH (L), STL (W), @PHI (L), WSH (W), SEA (W), BUF (W), @MIA (L), @NE (L), @SF (W), PHI (W), @NO (L), GB (L), @DAL (W), WSH (W), @NYJ (W), DAL (L)
Summary: It’s a roughly unsettled team that is battling injury, depth and a tough division. However, if any team has the tools to improve and pull out an upset divisional win it’s the G-Men, but it doesn’t seem to be in the cards this year with a still unsettled offensive line and thin receiving and linebacker groups. Record: 9-7
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (10-6 in 2010; Division Champs)
Offense: M. Vick-QB, D. Jackson-WR, L. McCoy-RB, J. Maclin-WR (A)
Defense: N. Asomugha-CB, T. Cole-DE, J. Babin-DE, A. Samuel-CB (B+)
The Good: It’s a track meet in Philly, with an offense that can score from anywhere. DeSean Jackson, Michael Vick, Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy can finish a drive as soon as they touch the ball. But they had that last year. The biggest improvement in this team is that now, it’s going to be much harder to play catch up, because there are very few windows to throw the ball into. The additions of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie make avoiding Asante Samuel nowhere near as easy of a proposition, therefore letting Trent Cole and new additions Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin go blitz crazy without worrying about any repercussions. If the Eagles get ahead by 10, it may be over.
The Bad: The offensive line could derail all hopes of a high powered offense if they don’t keep Vick on his feet and give McCoy a chance to get in the open field. Vick could be well served to take fewer hits in the open field, but he has to be able to drop back and work at least. Keeping him healthy is the key to how far this team can go, and that responsibility is being given to a group he’s already been forced to protect, a bit of odd role reversal so soon.
X-Factor-Casey Matthews: The team’s third round pick is being thrust into the middle of a subpar linebacker corps, and is inheriting a world of responsibility immediately. Since teams will be more apprehensive about going deep against their corners, the attacking over the middle and with the run will be the plan to overcome Philly. Matthews will have to rise to the occasion in a hurry to bring this unit up to speed.
Fearless Prediction: @STL (W), @ATL (L), NYG (W), SF (W), @BUF (W), @WSH (W), DAL (W), CHI (W), ARI (W), @NYG (L), NE (L), @SEA (W), @MIA (W), NYJ (W), @DAL (L), @WSH
Summary: There’s a world of expectation here, and for good reason. It is a team that showed great promise a year ago, and went out and seemingly signed every available impact player on the market to finish their ascent. There will be some bumps along the way, but they will once again be the class of the East and will push deeper towards Super Sunday this year…health permitting. Record: 12-4
WASHINGTON REDSKINS (6-10 in 2010)
Offense: S. Moss-WR, C. Cooley-TE, T. Williams-OT (C)
Defense: D. Hall-CB, B. Orakpo-LB, L. Landry-S, L. Fletcher-LB (D+)
The Good: For better or worse, most of the internal drama is moved out. Mike Shanahan vs. Donovan McNabb vs. Albert Haynesworth took down this team before it took to the field quite often. Regardless of the right or wrong of the scenario, having focused team will benefit the entire prognosis for the season. The new blood of Tim Hightower, Jabar Gaffney, Donte Stallworth, Ryan Kerrigan and OJ Atogwe both addresses problem areas from a year ago and provide new hope at formerly controversial positions.
The Bad: Rotating between John Beck and Rex Grossman doesn’t inspire much hope. While the improved supporting cast (especially at running back) will help mask some of these inadequacies, in the end the QB has to bear down and win some games for their team, and Beck couldn’t win over the Dolphins less than desirable QB opening and Grossman is a thrill seeker of the worst kind. The “best” thing either of them could do is get the team in position to draft a suitable QB of the future in April.
X-Factor-OJ Atogwe: A quick signing before the lockout took place, he stands to be the most meaningful addition to the club in the end. The Skins porous pass defense (261 yards per game, 2nd worst overall) had to be addressed in multiple places, and adding the former Ram’s diverse ability to play either safety spot will provide a much needed final line of defense.
Fearless Prediction: NYG (W), ARI (W), @DAL (L), @STL (L), PHI (L), @CAR (W), @BUF (W), SF (L), @MIA (W), DAL (W), @SEA (L), NYJ (L), NE (L), @NYG (L), MIN (L), @PHI (L)
Summary: It will be another frustrating year in D.C. There will be flashes of greatness and the defense will improve this year, but in the end it all comes back to the lack of a field general to pull out the tough wins and a tough end of the schedule. There are still some major moves that need to made to pull this team up the ladder and for the first time in two years, they will not improve their on their win total. Record: 5-11
To see how right, wrong or in-between this all works out, and me living with it, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan and @STLSport360