The NFC East could be the toughest in football. Well, at the least it will featured a frenzied race that could see the combatants battle to the very end of the season for playoff berths. And in the weaker NFC, three teams could emerge in the postseason.
COACH'S STATE: This could be Bill Parcells' final season coaching, even though he did sign an extension. Things have been very up and down for Parcells as the Cowboys' boss. A quick start and a playoff berth, then a down season, then a very inconsistent 2005. Parcells, though, has his best team in quite some time at any of his stops. He has his tough defense, possible electric offense and the combative star he needs. Sounds like a certain team in New York he once ran.
BIGGEST ADDITION: Let's see. Some guy named Terrell Owens now wears the blue and silver. This will give the Cowboys a legit receiving threat and should open up holes all over the field for Terry Glenn and the running game. The key will be the dynamic relationship Owens will have with Parcells and QB Drew Bledsoe. Neither will be afraid to get in TO's face....which actually may be what Owens' needs.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: Larry Allen went to 10 Pro Bowls as the Cowboys' guard. Sure, he isn't as good as he once was, but it will be tough to replace someone who had been there so long.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: Regardless of what people think, RB Julius Jones is the first option of the offense. But can he stay healthy?? He has yet to do so. This may be his final shot at being the Cowboys featured back. Just a hunch, but I think he's in for a big season. And they will need one from him in order for the passing game to be so lethal.
OFFENSE: Again, even though Owens is in Dallas, this will still be a running team. With Jones' injury issues last year, Marion Barber emerged as a reliable back too. This could allow Parcells to feature both backs and run teams into the ground. But, let's get real, Owens is a nightmare for any defensive coordinator and he will be bent on proving himself after his horrible 2005 season.
DEFENSE: It is now a 3-4 defense with a great defensive backfield. They've built their tough defense via the draft and have some of the top young defensive stars in Roy Williams, Marcus Spears and DeMarcus Ware. And I think Bobby Carpenter, a rookie LB from Ohio State, will have a nice first season. They'll be tough to conquer.
SCHEDULE: Well, the Cowboys play just once at Texas Stadium before October 15th...and that is a mega battle with the rival Redskins on Sunday Night Football. The schedule has some landmines. They have to go to Carolina, Arizona and Atlanta in addition to the division games in Washington and NY Giants. However, they get the AFC South this year and aside from the Colts [who they get at home], none of the other teams scare you too badly. Three of their final four games are at home. Oh, on October 9th, Terrell Owens returns to Philly.
OUTLOOK: It has been nine years since the Cowboys last won a playoff game. Amazing when you think that after Super Bowl XXX, Dallas averaged a Super Bowl championship every six years [and an appearance every 3.5 years]. A decade has passed since the Boys won their last title but they could end up with a good shot this year. A very veteran group will try to mix it up with some young guys to try to win this murky NFC East. I think they will get it with their stellar defense and very solid offense.
COACH'S STATE: Joe Gibbs went from "old man out of touch" in Year 1 back to "genius" status in Year 2. If there is anything I ever tell people about Gibbs, it is how great he is at making adjustments. He figured out the 21st century NFL and has more help then any coach. Essentially, he has two head coaches working under him. Al Saunders and Gregg Williams were heavy favorites to win head coaching jobs this past spring but owner Daniel Snyder locked them both up to help Gibbs with everything.
BIGGEST ADDITION: Brandon Lloyd. I know that Antwaan Randle El was the bigger name signing, but Lloyd may be the bigger addition. Lloyd will force safeties to worry about him as well...making Santana Moss, Chris Cooley and Randle El better.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: Sure, LaVar Arrington didn't play well during the Gregg Williams' era....but he was just so good an athlete that he has to be missed. At least a little. Especially since he will be lining up with the rival Giants who feature one of the fiercest defensive lines in which Arrington can excel.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: With the additions of Lloyd and Randle El.....and Al Saunders now calling the offensive shots....it will be up to QB Mark Brunell to keep the offense smoking. Brunell had a decent year last year, having his best TD season ever. But he had some horrible stretches as well....and some very bad mistakes. With two guys [Todd Collins and Jason Campbell] behind him that have yet to take a snap as Redskins....well, Brunell has got to make it work.
OFFENSE: Even with the new receivers, the Skins will want to run the football with RBs Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts. Off of that, they will be able to make that short passing game. Cooley, an HB, should benefit the most from Saunders calling the plays [Tony Gonzalez anyone?]. Also, their offensive line has been together for a bit now...even though they've fought injuries.
DEFENSE: The defense has carried the Skins over the past two seasons. They are a blitzing defense that relies of great DB play. It works. However, it hasn't resulted in a high amount of forced turnovers. New starters Andre Carter and Rocky McIntosh should make impacts. With the legal stuff mostly out of the way, Sean Taylor could have a breakout season. Adam Archuleta adds more big hit-ability back there while Shawn Springs and Carlos Rogers are very solid CBs.
SCHEDULE: There are three occassions the Skins play consecutive road games. Also, the Skins get games at Indy and at Tampa as well as hosting Carolina and Atlanta at home. In reality, the sked isn't much different than anyone else in the division got.
OUTLOOK: The Skins lost virtually nothing [okay, LaVar...but they really weren't using him] from a team that contended for the division title last year. This will be a solid coached team with everyone having defined roles. If Brunell can stay on the field and make sound decisions while he's there....the Skins could win the division.
3-NEW YORK GIANTS
COACH'S STATE: Tom Coughlin got this team to gel just one year after people thought he lost the veterans. Still, despite the division title, the Giants were smoked at home by Carolina in the first round of the playoffs. While Coughlin did a great job last year, he still isn't out of the clear.
BIGGEST ADDITION: Adding LaVar Arrington means that not only do they steal a player from a rival [Redskins] but they get that LT-type player that can make plays happen all over the field. The problem with Arrington is that he relies on his raw athleticsm too much where he gets out of position and can give up big plays. Still, with that stud of a D-line in front of him and a chip on his shoulder, Arrington could have a stellar season.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: Though the talk of the D-line is the ends, DT Kendrick Clancy had a darn good season for the Giants last year. He's a run stuffer, which allowed the ends to lean a bit more to attacking the QB. New York will be inserting the young Damane Duckett in his place
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: It's always easy to blame the QB, but it really is Eli Manning's time to shine. He has weapons....he just needs to find them. With Plaxico Burress and Jeremy Shockey, he has two great red zone threats. Amani Toomer is solid and they have Tim Carter and Sinorice Moss who can stretch out defenses. Manning has got to be able to find these guys. He played okay last year....but sunk against the league's better defenses.
OFFENSE: This offense is set around Manning playing well....so the entire offense needs him to step it up. Like I just said, there are receiving threats everywhere. And behind him he has Tiki Barber who is defying RB time and getting better with age. Still, this team needs to perform better in the red zone and needs to make more big plays.
DEFENSE: The defense was smashed with injuries last year. They basically ran thru 6 starting linebackers and had to deal with broke down guys in the wildcard round last year. The additions of Arrington and Brandon Short means the Giants get a bit deeper and better. But a guy like Antonio Pierce must stay on the field. The secondary was completely rebuilt and may actually take advantage of their beautiful defensive line. I mean, this team has Michael Strahan on one side; Osi Umenyiora on the other; with Justin Tuck and rookie Mathias Kiwanuka as backups. Yeesh!
SCHEDULE: This is why I think the G-men may finish below Washington and Dallas. Being the defending division champion, the Giants end up with games against the Seahawks and Bears...the best teams in those divisions. With Tampa and Indy on the sked already, that means the Giants must face four division winners from '05 and have seven games against playoff teams.
OUTLOOK: The defense, just like in Dallas and Washington, should be better than ever. The offense looks good too. But, the guys in DC and Dallas have been there/done that. Eli hasn't...though he could end up greater than either of those guys. Still, I think that a healthy dose of stellar defenses may make Eli wilt a bit this year. I don't think they'll repeat as division champions but they can definitely get into the playoffs.
COACH'S STATE: Andy Reid will be under a bit of pressure this year. One, it was his inability to mediate the TO-McNabb feud that ultimately ended up with Owens in Dallas. Two, he was criticized for relying too heavily on passing the football. Third, these Eagles are seeing a different NFC East. The division they dominated over the previous 5 years has gotten much better and have left the Eagles in the rear. Many people want to see how Reid can pull out of this.
BIGGEST ADDITION: Philly really hopes that DE Darren Howard can bring back to life a horrid defensive line. He's great against the run and is a solid pass rusher who could open up Jevon Kearse on the other side.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: It has to be Terrell Owens. Sure, the team played without Owens last season...but they also lost 9 of their last 11 games. He will be missed badly. Their receiving corps is decent at best with no one putting fear in any defense. The fact Owens is in Dallas hurts more, since they will have to see and hear from him twice during the season. And no one in the NFC East feels sorry for Philly in any way.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: Jevon Kearse has been a disappointment in Philadelphia. He's weak off the line and really is only effective when he does "The Freak" and chases down people. Aside from that, he's only mediocre. He needs to step it up.
OFFENSE: Getting Donovan McNabb back will definitely boost the offense. But, what will he be dealing with? His receiving corps is a pretty good Reggie Brown, a Todd Pinkston who is recovering from a blown Achilles, and a disappointing Jabar Gaffney. His top receiver is RB Brian Westbrook, who is a better receiver than runner. And with no true running back behind him, McNabb may be in for a long year.
DEFENSE: Thank God the team has one of the NFL's best secondaries [doesn't everyone in the NFC East?] of the Eagles would be in dire straits. The D-line is in flux and the linebacking crew features two newbies. But that secondary of Lito Sheppard, Michael Lewis, Sheldon Brown and Brian Dawkins is awesome....and they have solid backups as well.
SCHEDULE: The advantage of finishing last means you get the division's easiest sked. The Eagles get the Niners and Packers...where the other division foes don't. Figure in the Texans, Titans and Saints...and the Eagles will play against teams who picked in 5 of the top 6 selections of the recent draft. They still have a burning stretch around Thanksgiving when they go to Indy, Carolina at home, at Washington, at NY Giants and at Dallas. And then they host Atlanta. Ouch.
OUTLOOK: Well, it is easy to see why the Eagles are last in my division rundown. The other three teams added onto their rosters and didn't take big hits in free agency. And all of those teams were competing for a playoff spot on the final week of the season. While Owens may be gone and the chemistry better, his presence on the field will be missed. The team is relying on a QB and a WR who were hurt all or most of last season to make things happen. Not a good hope in this division. The Eagles will finish last, but won't be near as bad as any of the other last place teams.