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2008 preview: NFC East

August 17, 2008

The NFC East is the division most likely to disappoint in 2008.

Much is already expected from the division which a year ago produced three playoff teams – including the eventual Super Bowl champions – and many people are already touting the Cowboys in particular as postseason contenders.

If all goes well, any of the four could be serious players in January, but odds are that only one or two will be able to avoid major injuries and live up to their potential.

Dallas Cowboys

Prediction: 12-4, 1st in division

The Cowboys’ strong 2007 showing and relatively stable offseason in theory puts them at the top of the division, and possibly the conference. Look a little closer, however, and the ‘Boys swagger could be easily punctured.

Firstly, the team has to continue to balance a locker room with more than its fair share of lively personalities. As the Giants proved in ’07, team unity and discipline goes a long way in the NFL, and Dallas’ habit of piling up brash characters must at some point take a toll on the team’s ability to hang together when the going gets tough.

Dallas’ playmaking offense is also brittle. While Jason Witten is an elite TE, the team only has one real receiving threat in Terrell Owens, and has done nothing to bolster the WR corps in the offseason. An injury to TO would cripple the team’s big play ability, and enable opposing defences to focus even more on Witten. The move from a two-back to a one-back system, centred on Marion Barber, also makes the HB central to the Boys’ ability to move the chains. QB Tony Romo and the team’s bruising offensive line should provide a dependanble core, but there’s only so many first downs Romo can scramble for. Keeping TO, Witten and Barber on the field and on the good end of matchups will be key.

A strong defense should be bolstered by the addition of Pacman Jones. The combination of DeMarcus Ware and an attacking 3-4 style will keep the unit at the top end of the NFC, and limit opponents time and options in the passing game in particular. If the offense can stay healthy – and opposing coaches still can’t work out how to stop Owens- the Cowboys’ preseason confidence will be warranted.

New York Giants

Prediction: 9-7, 3rd in division

The reigning champions are already trying to recapture the underdog status which propelled them to a surprising late season run, mostly by griping about how underrated they are. On paper, though, the Giants have gotten worse in the offseason, and will probably struggle to repeat their success.

The biggest challenge for Tom Coughlin’s team will be that the surprising and innovative elements of the Giants ’07 style are no longer surprising or innovative. The defence’s pass rush (already weakened by the loss of team leader Michael Strahan) has been broken down in film rooms across the league, and opponents now have more than enough footage of Kevin Boss, Steve Smith and the other upstarts who fuelled the team’s playoff run. HB Brandon Jacobs is also no longer the unknown factor he was a year ago.

Jeremy Shockey is another departee in the offseason, and while no-one in New York will mourn the abscence of his social skills, over the course of a 16/19 game season the sort of one-on-one matchup advantage he gave the team’s inside passing game will be missed.

Defensively Strahan’s abscence immediately removes one of the unit’s most effective playmakers, and a locker room figure who led by example. Like most in the division, the team has an elite linebacking corps, and MLB Antonio Pierce gives the defence a top tier football brain which can keep track of slippery divisional customers like Brian Westbrook and Clinton Portis.

The secondary continues to be New York’s achilles heel. If the Strahan-less rush can’t keep opposing quarterbacks on the run, the Giants patchy defensive backs are unlikely to be able to frustrate any competent passing team.

The Giants were the right team in the right place at the right time, and any side who could stop the Patriots’ march to immortality needs to be respected. The trouble with winning is that everyone else starts paying attention to you, and the Giants novelties’ will be run of the mill in 2008.

Philadelphia Eagles

Prediction: 9-7, 4th in division

Philadelphia was one of the NFL’s biggest underachievers in 2007. An athletic and experienced secondary coupled with strong inside run defence gives the team a rare and solid base, and the offense includes two of the conference’s best playmakers.

The prescence of Brian Westbrook alone is enough to give the Eagles a shot at the postseason in the NFC, and the aging offensive line still has enough juice to give him running lanes. The Eagles playcalling has consistently kept opponents guessing, and supporting players from Correll Buckhalter to LJ Smith have enough flexibility to keep the offence three-dimensional.

Much like last year, however, the Eagles’ problems reside at the QB position and with the Head Coach. With the best will in the world, Andy Reid’s off-field problems and periodic abscences create instability in the team and organisation, to say nothing of draining the coach’s focus and energies. At a time when the team needs its on field leaders to step up, QB Donovan McNabb is unlikely to be the stabilising force required in 08. Whether because of yet another injury or his insecurities over the prescence of his eventual replacement on the squad, McNabb’s elite talent will likely again be shown in flashes rather than the sustained displays needed to catch a postseason berth.

Many in the Eagles camp will already be looking forward to the next phase, with Kevin Kolb readying himself in the wings and a likely shift in coaching staff within the next year or so. The front office will accordingly soon be considering how to replace long serving veterans like Brian Dawkins and Jon Runyan in preparation for a new era. What Philadelphia has in talent it is likely to lack in focus.


Washington Redskins

Prediction: 10-6, 2nd in division

In many ways the Redskins are the division’s most enigmatic prospect. The team’s traditional underachieving ways were overcome last year and a unique team bond created by the extraordinary circumstances around the death of Sean Taylor.

With his customary disregard for soft emotional or psychological stuff, owner Daniel Snyder swiftly shattered the team’s rapport with an offseason coaching overhaul which was as crude as it was weird. The upshot of all the changes and a suprisingly restrained draft is that he now has a pass-first approach and offensive depth to bring some sexier playmaking to DC.

The ‘Skins 07 weaknesses have partly been addressed – Jason Campbell is fast developing into a dangerous QB, and in new coach Jim Zorn’s offence seems to be able to spread the ball to any of 5-6 receiving threats. On defense, the acquisition of Jason Taylor is a massive upgrade at DE, and though the loss of Sean Taylor leaves a big hole the unit will likely continue to improve year on year.

Washington is, broadly, capable of anything. Optimists can point to proved threats like RB Clinton Portis and TE Chris Cooley, areas of strength like the linebacking corps and the return of Campbell from injury. Pessimists can question whether rookie HC Zorn can settle the offense into a new system quickly, whether Snyder can keep his meddling fingers out of the biscuit tin, and whether the offensive line can stay healthier than it did a year ago, when injuries wrecked the first half of the season. 11-5 is not out of the question, but then neither is 5-11…

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