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Handicappin’ the NFC East Race

Taking a gander at the NFL’s toughest returning* division from last year.

*NFC South had a better overall record.  They will not return at the same level of strength.

As in most years, the NFC’s toughest division will be determined by divisional play.  Again.  Sort of.  The division champion Giants went a mere 4-2 against the rest of the NFC East, which, yes, was the best figure in the division.  The Cowboys and the Redskins went 3-3, and the Eagles 2-4.  Of course, the division was won by 3.5 games, so there was more going on here than simple divisional dominance.

The New York Giants

The Giants return as the nominal favorite to win the division, but if you end up with the option of betting (simply) on or against the Giants this year, bet against.  In 2007, 10 wins got the Giants into the playoffs, and in position for an eventual super bowl run.  10 wins this year might not be good enough to make the playoffs.

flickr.com/jacorbett70

flickr.com/jacorbett70

Gone is RB Derrick Ward, WR Plaxico Burress, and WR Amani Toomer, but 9 starters return to the offense.  The defense loses S James Butler, but adds well more than it lost, it’s offseason haul includes: DL Chris Canty, DT Rocky Bernard, LB Michael Boley and LB Clint Sintim.  Rookie WRs Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden will work with second and third year players Mario Manningham and Steve Smith to help fill the void at WR.

It’s hard to say if they improved or declined, if only because you can’t necessarily conclusively say where this team was last year.  The defense played worse in the second half of the year, playoff game included, than it did in the first, and the offensive line, best in the league for about ten weeks last year, was hardly stellar down the stretch.  The Giants started 11-1, but finished as a very average team, unable to beat the Cowboys or the Eagles, and catching the Redskins on a bad day en route to a relatively unimpressive rout.  They didn’t play particularly well against either the Bengals or Browns last year, and though they beat the Steelers on the road, it’s a game that the Steelers were able to close out the rest of the year.

If everything goes right, then…the Giants will again win the Super Bowl.  They need all of their offensive lineman to stay healthy for another 16 games to keep Manning comfortable in the pocket, they need one of Hicks, Smith, or Domenik Hixon to emerge as a dependable target on offense to keep Manning moving the chains, and the defense needs to be better than it was at the end of the year last year, which means the secondary must shore up it’s SS and No. 2 CB positions.

Honestly, what could go wrong?… Well, for starters, Eli Manning could crack early on.  Though baby Manning is as fundamentally sound as any passer in the NFL, he’s the least accurate passer of any player in the league who could be remotely considered an NFL quarterback.  If none of the receivers emerge early, it could be a rough season for Manning.  On top of that, the offensive line is aging at 4 out of 5 positions, and one or two injuries would open the floodgates for defenses to attack Manning.  Brandon Jacobs is hardly a productive runner behind a mediocre or weak offensive line (which he’s never had to deal with).  The linebackers could be worse than anyone currently expects, especially since no one really knows what the scheme will call for.  If Aaron Ross doesn’t develop this year, the Giants likely will not wait on him much longer.

For a half-assed prediction… The Giants are more likely to finish in second place this year than with any other result.  Their incredible defensive depth will keep them in the running for the division title deep into the season, but it’s the offense that might be of concern as the season drags on.  This is less about Manning himself, and more about what happens to Manning when conditions around him break down.  Over the last 21 games or so, we’ve seen Eli when everyone around him knows what to do, but this year, his performance should be much more of a mixed bag of baffling interceptions and gutsy-blitz defying throws.

Overall, if the NFC is significantly weaker than expected, the Giants are the team best built to weather adversity.  They are not the team who is most likely to avoid adversity altogether.  10-11 wins is likely, but 8-9 would not be pessimistic.

The Philadelphia Eagles

flickr.com/storyspinn

flickr.com/storyspinn

The Eagles very nearly parlayed a miracle playoff berth into a super bowl appearance.  Early on, the Eagles ran into some bad fortune when the Cowboys and Bears both played above their talent to win close games, and the Redskins defense showed a dominance of the Eagles’ offense that it simply never showed over any other team.  While the Eagles were crushing all their opponents in the games they were inning in the first half of the year, a three game winless streak against the Giants, Bengals, and Ravens put the Eagles’ season very much on the ropes.  After running off three consecutive victories, the Eagles once again failed to perform offensively against the Redskins, and lost pretty much all hopes of making the playoffs.

Except, with improbable losses by the Bears and Bucs in Week 17, the Eagles were given a reprieve against the Cowboys, a win and you’re in situation, a game that would be won 44-6, and the Eagles defense carried the team through the Vikings and the Giants, into the NFC Championship game.

Despite another Championship game loss, the Eagles ended the season playing the best football of any team in the NFC East by far.  A lot of people think that their good performance will carry over into the 2009 season, in spite of some significant roster turnover.

If everything goes right, then…the Eagles will win the super bowl.  Donovan McNabb will produce another McNabb-like season, only this team, one of his three or so bad games a season won’t overlap with the playoffs.  McNabb, historically, has been a great performer in the playoffs, but his three worst performances have ended the seasons of the three best Eagle teams in memory, 2002-2004.  After a three year hiatus, McNabb was back in the postseason in 2008, and was as good as ever…up until the Championship game against Arizona.

Brian Westbrook will bounce back from an injury-riddled 2008 campaign to re-establish himself as the top offensive weapon in the NFC, and the defense will prove not to miss Jim Johnson at all, as a incredibly strong defensive line helps spring a productive linebacker corps, and the defense leads it’s offense to the super bowl and over the top.

Honestly, what could go wrong?… Three major things could de-feather the Eagles.  First, if Westbrook doesn’t return to form, and he’s 30 now, the Eagles offense will enter 2009 without a dynamic weapon to lean on.  The second major thing is the defense, which, talent-wise should be among the best or second best in the NFC.  It should be better than the Giants’.  But with Jim Johnson out of coaching for at least one year, the pressure-oriented schemes will change, and this creates a weakness in a long-ignored area on the Eagles, the linebackers.  We’ll get to see if Stewart Bradley is a scheme adaptable talent, or simply a good scouting find by the Eagles.  A middle of the pack defense would not be becoming of a super bowl contender.  The final issue: the offensive line.  They’ve infused the unit with both talent, and with youth, but is it better?  An improvement over last year’s not-so-terrible offensive line relies on Jason Peters to prove that his 2008 league-leading sacks allowed season was an aberration, it relies on Stacey and Shawn Andrews to find the right balance on the right side, and it requires a talent improvement in the middle of the line where Todd Herremans and Jamaal Jackson have been only somewhat adequate.  Any one of these three things becoming a major issue limits what the Eagles can accomplish this year.

For a half-assed prediction… These Eagles are not anything like last year’s version.  They might be significantly better, and they might also be moderately worse, but in the most likely of probabilities, they’ll somewhat resemble their team from last season.  We got to see the best, and the worst, of that Eagles team, as they at different times were close to securing a top ten draft pick, and heading to the super bowl.  I’m not forecasting a decline in McNabb’s numbers, but if Brian Westbrook doesn’t run wild right from the first carry, it’s necessary that the Eagles find a way to spread his excess offense around to guys like DeSean Jackson, Kevin Curtis, and Brent Celek, essentially making McNabb the focal point of the passing game again.

The Eagles have the makings of a 10-win team.  They have the talent to win 12-13, but also the uncertainty to be a 7-9 win team.

The Dallas Cowboys

Given the preseason expectations of the 2008 Cowboys, the argument could be made that last season’s 9-7 finish was a complete and utter disaster, but the hype around this team was 100% pure media creation.  Like any other team that comes out of no where to be a playoff team, if the fundamentals aren’t strong, you can expect a multiple-win regression in the next season.  The 2007 Cowboys didn’t have the fundamental statistics to back up their 13-3 record, nor did they have an over abundance of big game victories to suggest legitimacy.  They were just a good team, not a great one.  The 2008 Cowboys were also a good team.  But after an injury or two, they weren’t really a playoff team, and sure enough, they ended up missing the playoffs last year.

flickr.com/ladybugbkt

flickr.com/ladybugbkt

If everything goes right, then… The Cowboys have the talent to return to the playoffs.  Miles Austin and Sam Hurd are talented enough to replace Terrell Owens in the lineup, and Roy Williams can only get better.  Kyle Kosier’s return to the offensive line should help.  16 games of a healthy Terence Newman means an improved pass defense, and Keith Brooking is a better scheme fit at ILB than was Zach Thomas.  The running game figures to be the strength of the offense, behind a triple headed attack lead by Marion Barber.

Honestly, what could go wrong?… In Dallas?  There’s no guarantee that anyone will step up in the receiving corps, as Roy Williams has only one 1,000 yd season to his name, and a low catch rate, historically.  Austin and Hurd look like players, but have yet to prove anything as more than a 4th receiver.

And what if Felix Jones struggles in his second season?  Do the Cowboys relegate him to third string, or do they let him play out his struggles while blocking Tashard Choice?  Tony Romo could see his QB rating drop below 90 for the first time in his short career.  And as possible as it is for the defense to improve, it could also collapse with an injury or two.

But the biggest problem is on the offensive line where Flozell Adams hasn’t been good for two years now, Marc Columbo is a marginal RT, and the overall line has been uncharacteristically resistant to injury in the last three years.  If that doesn’t continue, the Cowboys offense could be a mess in the near future, and it could cost Jason Garrett his job.

For a half-assed prediction… The Cowboys need a lot of things to go right in order to make the playoffs.  They might actually receive a small bump over last year’s level of performance, but it’s going to take a lot more than a small bump to get this team over the hump.  Romo can hope that his receivers will be better this year, but it’s just hope.  So based on that offensive uncertainty, and a defense that figures to take a small step backwards this year, I’m seeing 7-8 wins with a ceiling of 9 or 10.

The Washington Redskins

flickr.com/leediehr

flickr.com/leediehr

They started  6-2, and finished 2-6.  But that doesn’t begin or end the story of the 2008 Redskins, it’s just stating what happened.  The best players, and best performers, on the Redskins were on the offensive side of the ball, including Chris Cooley, Chris Samuels, Pete Kendall, Jason Campbell, Mike Sellers, Santana Moss, and Clinton Portis, all among the team’s top ten players from a year ago.  However, the Redskins are a team that allows it’s defense to set the tone for it’s game, and when it’s usually consistent defense underperforms, the team’s performance goes with it.

With that in mind, rather than change that organizational philosophy (which would have seemed easier), the Redskins went out and spent considerable resources to get pieces to the defense that would help them with their tone setting.  Incoming players include: Albert Haynesworth, Brian Orakpo, Jeremy Jarmon, and Kevin Barnes, three rookies among the bunch.

If everything goes right, then…the Redskins are an easy pick to be the No. 1 seed in the NFC in the playoffs.  Between Haynesworth, Portis, Cooley, Samuels, LaRon Landry, London Fletcher, and Carlos Rogers, the Redskins sport the highest amount of individual talents of any team in the division.  If every one of them stays healthy and productive, this Redskins team sports a legitimate supporting cast to get it done.  The team is littered with young talent as well, possibly for the first time in a long while.  Add to the mix a very soft schedule, and the Redskins figure to win far more games than they lose.

Of course, over the last two years, the No. 1 seed in the playoffs have just served to get upset by someone else in the NFC East, so if history is a guide, the Redskins might be better off sneaking in as a No. 6 seed and knocking off the No. 1.

Honestly, what could go wrong?… Not much could go wrong with regard to the schedule, the Redskins are going to have about 5 wins thrust at them simply for playing bottom-10 type teams, which is 2 more easily winnable games than anyone else in the division has.

However, with the exception of Haynesworth, all of the star power on the Redskins is backed up by essentially nothing.  If Portis gets hurt, the Redskins have no running game.  If Landry gets hurt, the team loses a dual-threat in the secondary that won’t be replaced.  If Samuels gets hurt, the season is over.  If Fletcher gets hurt, the defensive scheme doesn’t work.  The supporting cast is still there, but it’s not going to win games in this division without it’s stars.

For a half-assed prediction the Redskins, on paper, look like an 11 win team.  They could, however, win as few as seven games if but a few key injuries occur.  If the offensive line gels and they get productivity from last year’s receiving draft class, they could potentially surpass 11 wins to reach 12 or 13.  But that is asking a lot of things to fall right into place.  Barring multiple key injuries, the Redskins will win 10 or 11 games, which may or may not be good enough to win the division, or even make the playoffs.

Liveball’s Projected Order of Finish:

  1. Giants (10-12 wins)
  2. Redskins (8-12 wins)
  3. Eagles (9-11 wins)
  4. Cowboys (7-10 wins)
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  1. July 25, 2009 at 2:50 am
  2. September 10, 2009 at 5:56 pm

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